How Morocco’s “plastic bag rule” has renewed Arab sustainability efforts5 min read
As Marrakech hosted the international climate summit, COP22, in November 2016, it felt like something of a watershed moment. World attention focused, at least briefly, on how Morocco was becoming a world leader in green, renewable energy.
Unlike its Arab neighbours to the east, Morocco cannot rely on its own supply of oil and so it makes good sense to invest in renewables. The Green Morocco Plan[i] is an agriculture-focused scheme and the kingdom is showing solid green credentials[ii] with schemes such as Noor, the enormous Saharan solar power station, and wind farms near Tangiers.
Other recent efforts have included electric buses and a bike sharing scheme in Marrakech and reimagining places, such as Chefchaouen, as green towns.[iii]
Perhaps the most newsworthy green act by the Moroccan government was the ban on plastic bags which came into effect around the time of COP22. Known as Zero Mika (the word for plastic in Moroccan Arabic), the move was aimed at addressing problems of litter and pollution. These have visibly improved[iv] and, at the very least, there seems to be a realisation that environmental issues need to be tackled and that change is required.[v]
Litter and pollution ruin local environments and harm farm animals, whilst agriculture, more generally, is affected by climate change bringing drought and other extremes.[vi]
Schemes such as Zero Mika can be seen as parts of wider Arab efforts addressing environmental problems but a major concern remains: how such policies affect the lives of working and poor people. We must ask whether they realistically benefit those people who are most vulnerable to climate change,[vii] such as rural farmers and those living precariously in urban slums.
Too often, environmental politics are controlled by the rich and powerful, and a major concern behind Morocco’s reforms is how they remain top-down as opposed to locally grounded, bottom-up movements. The plastic bag initiative, for instance, was rather hastily implemented and in fact led to significant confusion amongst the general population: which bags were banned, what would replace them, how would goods be sold and carried away on a daily basis?
To the local merchant, such a law change can easily be perceived as an imposition and a threat to their livelihood. Indeed, after initial successes, the use of plastic bags is anecdotally back on the increase. The top-down approach is susceptible to the accusation that policies are simply headline-grabbers, particularly when some world media attention comes with an event such as COP22.
It is unclear, then, how Morocco’s governmental green policies translate to locally sustainable movements and concrete benefits for the general population. In the cities, the plastic bag ban has sparked the growth of a small sector of chic alternative fabric bag providers and the like, but this kind of faux-bohemianism is hardly a solution to deep climate problems and probably has more to do with bourgeois tourist sensibilities.
One area in need of serious improvement is waste management,[viii] and here Morocco is perhaps seeing some localised attempts to do things better. Poverty, itself, can force people to come up with resourceful solutions to problems such as waste management,[ix] but more innovative methods will be part of any longer term solution. For example, schemes such as recycling cooperatives have been identified as models to be copied and expanded, albeit with a need for external funding.[x, xi]
Politically speaking, the existence of radical discontent indicates the inadequacy and inequality of current environmental models. In Imider, a village on the Saharan side of the High Atlas Mountains, a protest known as the Movement on the Road ’96 has been active since 2011 with the aim of resisting a local mine and its misuse of water sources.[xii]
Away from the glamour of global events such as COP22 or attention-grabbing stories such as Zero Mika, this is the other face of Morocco’s environmental politics. Where long term solar or wind investment plans and law changes with plastic bags have a potential to seem at best irrelevant and at worst hostile, movements with a local focus can counteract these sentiments.
A rural village’s water supply and the nearby mine which provides limited employment but abundant pollution hold a very real significance in the daily lives of local people. Morocco will need to reconcile both of these strands – the grand government project and the local grassroots protest.
[i] Green Morocco Plan website, http://www.maroc.ma/en/content/green-morocoo-plan
[ii] Climate Action, “Morocco to invest €200 million in solar projects to serve agricultural growth,” October 2, 2017, http://www.climateactionprogramme.org/news/morocco-to-invest-200-million-in-solar-projects-to-serve-agricultural-growt
[iii] Arab News, “In Morocco, a blue tourist town is turning green,” November 15, 2017, http://www.arabnews.com/node/1193366/middle-east
[iv] Pulitzer Center, “Inside Morocco’s Renewable Revolution,” September 14, 2017, https://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/inside-moroccos-renewable-revolution
[v] Al Jazeera, “Going green: Morocco bans use of plastic bags,” July 2, 2016, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/07/green-morocco-bans-plastic-bags-160701141919913.html
[vi] The Guardian, “COP22 host Morocco launches action plan to fight devastating climate change,” November 7, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/nov/07/cop22-host-morocco-marrakech-action-plan-fight-devastating-climate-change-africa-farmers-un-conference
[vii] Pambazuka News, “The coming revolution in North Africa: The struggle for climate justice,” June 19, 2015, https://www.pambazuka.org/land-environment/coming-revolution-north-africa-struggle-climate-justice%E2%80%99
[viii] EcoMENA, “Waste management in Morocco,” November 13, 2017, https://www.ecomena.org/waste-management-morocco/
[ix] The Conversation, “The small hands of Moroccan recycling,” May 30, 2017, https://theconversation.com/the-small-hands-of-moroccan-recycling-74878
[x] Qantara, “Waste separation and recycling in Morocco,” July 28, 2017, https://en.qantara.de/content/waste-separation-and-recycling-in-morocco-moroccos-recycling-pioneers
[xi] Huffpost Maghreb, “En matière de recyclage, le Maroc veut donner l’exemple,” February 23, 2016, https://www.huffpostmaghreb.com/2016/02/23/decharge-oum-anza_n_9297280.html
[xii] Al Jazeera, “A Moroccan village’s long fight for water rights,” December 13, 2015, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/12/moroccan-village-long-fight-water-rights-151205121358666.html