Morocco’s long-running Imider water protests

From ToxicLeaks

Imider and the Amazhig people[edit | edit source]

The Amazhig are widely known as the Berber peoples of North Africa, with a large presence in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and western Egypt, and ethnic groups found as far south as Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. They refer to themselves by the indigenous Amazhig name – Berber was imposed by foreigners – with up to 30 million speakers of varying dialects across North Africa and into the Sahel.

Among these Tamazight speakers is a community of about 4,000 people who live in seven villages at Imider in the Atlas Mountains, which create a buffer between Morocco’s coastal lands and the Sahara Desert. Here the Amazhig live in agricultural communities that practice Agraw, an ancient model of collective governance and tribal democracy, and whose arid lands are replenished by a traditional khettara system, an underground canal network providing water to desert farmers since the 14th century. In the 20th century, however, water resources became threatened by mining operations: Today’s steadfast protesters protecting water rights at Imider now continue into their third decade.

History of the SMI silver mine[edit | edit source]

In 1969, a mine run by Societe Metallurgique d'Imider (SMI) was founded on the southeast edge of the Amazhig communities and it began producing silver in 1984. SMI is a subsidiary of Managem SA, controlled by the Moroccan royal family through private holding company Siger which holds a 60 percent stake in Societe Nationale d'Investissement (SNI). King Mohammed VI inherited a 35 percent share in SNI upon the death of his father, King Hassan, and as Africa’s wealthiest king controls an estimated USD$10 billion in SNI assets. In contrast, more than half of Imider lives on less than $1 day.

The silver mine was expanded in 1995, and again in 2005 and 2007, with a 7 percent increase in production in 2016. With each expansion came greater pressure on resources critical to the Amazhig villages. The Imider mine operations create high demand for water, and problems with residents’ supply began as early as 1986 – with the original protesters sent to jail and the mine’s wells dug over their objections. Those protests peaked again in 1996, when residents blocked National Road 10 for 45 days. A violent end to that protest on March 10 inspires today’s activists, called Movement on the Road ’96.

Protests over water resource protection[edit | edit source]

The water impacts never stopped. A 2005 report issued by Moroccan organization INNOVAR found that new wells built by the mine in 2004 caused a 48 percent drop in water supply from three khettaras taking water to the villages, and farm wells dropped by 1.25 meters. Ten years later, mine officials still denied any correlation between their water diversions and the impact on the seven Amazhig villages.

Activists also object to toxic waste from the mines and the impact on health as well as agriculture and quality of life. The Moroccan Association of Investigative Journalism (AMJI) – often under pressure itself from Rabat – found in 2013 that the level of toxins including arsenic, cobalt, cadmium and lead often exceeded international standards in the Imider region. That investigation included resident testimony over health impacts but no medical study has ever determined if there’s a link between the cancer, respiratory illness, and other diseases and exposure in Imider's soil and water. In addition to health and environmental issues, the Amazhig protests press on against what they say are human rights violations.

Beginning on August 23, 2011, the indigenous Moroccans have held the country’s longest-running protest. They closed off a valve on water lines to the mine and set up a round-the-clock protest. Dozens of people were arrested over the years – most recently in 2013 and 2014 – with the last three released from prison in December 2017. Yet Amazhig villagers say they achieved success against the mining company (and its royal owner) after having water just one hour a day back in 2011. By 2014, a report showed their occupation of the main pumping station to the mines, where they padlocked the valve controls and stayed day and night, had protected millions of gallons of water but also cut the silver mine productivity dramatically. In other words, they demonstrated the long-denied correlation by its impact.

In what is now the seventh year, the sit-ins continue with about 80 people participating and far more attending marches held every few weeks. The Amazhig say that Managem officials still do not comply with their demands, and their social responsibility projects have little impact in improving their quality of life. Yet the mine officials have asked a Swiss firm to verify each year that the mine is doing no harm.

Broader struggle: To exist is to resist[edit | edit source]

Imider protests that first began 30 years ago have built an activist community that focuses on a broad range of social issues and human rights. They are expressed through direct action, in the arts, and in collaboration with other Moroccan activists including those of the Hirak movement in the Rif region. Hirak activists, sparked by the 2016 death of Mohcen Fikri in Al Hoceima, launched widespread human rights protests that in January 2018 included a joint action in solidarity with the Movement on the Road ’96 group in Imider. Called Tilili – freedom, in the Amazhig language – it called attention to Morocco’s political prisoners while emphasizing social movements rather than political parties as change agents.

Yet for the Amazhig, their struggle for environmental justice is one part of their efforts to have their ethnic identity accepted and achieve equality in a country that has never done so. Education reforms, and language and cultural inclusion have been slow to materialize, unemployment and poverty remain challenges, and the Imider protesters see their water protection as more than a bold stance on public health and environmental issues. Civic participation, an active role in advancing democracy, and gender and class equality are part of the overarching commitment to human rights and reforms that cannot be separated from the environmental protections they see in a holistic approach to a sustainable future.