Morocco is located at the far western end of the Sahara desert along the Atlantic ocean and the western end of the Mediterranean Sea. The Atlas and Rif Mountains run from the southwest to the northeast and separate the desert from the ocean. Along the coast between the ocean and the mountains there are low coastal plains and plateaus where most of Morocco’s agriculture happens.
The Lay Of The Land
In the north, the coastal region has a hot, dry summer and mild wet winters like most other Mediterranean coasts. Rainfall is about 32 inches a year in the north, but as you move south along the Atlantic coastal plain the annual rainfall decreases until in the far south coastal area there is only 8 or 9 inches of rain annually. In Morocco, agriculture employs over 40 percent of the labor force, but only represents 15 percent of the gross domestic product. Grains are grown in the rainy northwest coastal plains and olives, citrus fruits and wine grapes are grown in the other coastal regions further south. Most of Western Europe’s illicit hashish is grown and processed in Ketama Province in the Rif Mountains.
An agricultural cycle is based on the military being able to protect enough land that the population can feed itself by raising crops and livestock. In Morocco, the military is not used so much to engage in external conflicts as it supports the government suppress domestic unrest. Protecting land in Morocco is more a product of relationships with international banking institutions like the IMF, access to the European marketplace and subsidies to the rural farming populace in order to keep them pacified. The military has a role, but it is subverted from protecting farmers and their land to protecting the government.
Morocco is one of the few Arab countries that has a realistic possibility of feeding itself. Most Arab countries are in desert locations where food is obtained through trade. Morocco’s problem is that it grows the wrong combination of crops to sustain feeding itself year in and year out. Recurring droughts ruin the northern grain crops about every three years. In recent years, to alleviate this problem the Moroccan government has overhauled the agricultural system using massive subsidies. It’s called the “Green Morocco Plan,” and was initiated in 2010. Basically, farmers are paid to clear land and plant fruit trees on land that was either empty or previously used to grow grains.
The government’s idea is to reform agriculture away from low profit crops and replace them with higher profit crops. The challenge is that during drought years Morocco doesn’t grow enough grain to feed itself and winds up importing wheat from the United States or France, or both. There are other challenges also; for instance, almost 60 percent of Morocco’s 33 million people live in cities, but over 70 percent of Morocco’s poor live in rural areas. Education is improving, but still not good, and since Arab Spring events began over three years ago, the Moroccan government has used subsidies to help suppress social discontent. The subsidies are now beginning to strap the government’s economic programs and there is push back from the International Monetary Fund for better fiscal policy.
Morocco’s agriculture is part of a country wide monarchical political structure that was ruled with an iron fist for forty years, until the 1990s. The King, his advisers and secret police devised a system that took taxes and offered few improvements in return. There was widespread social dissension under the surface, which rarely got voice without those involved being thrown into jail. In 1999 King, Mohammed VI came to power and reformed the power structure, attempting to retain the wealth generation leading to his government, but also attempting to be far less repressive on society at large.
In response to the Arab Spring in 2010, the February 20 Movement began in Morocco. Mohammed VI was cautious not to react harshly. The government recognized the demand for redress of grievances. The King delivered a major speech in early March, 2009 in which he raised the minimum wage by 15 percent, increased scholarships for students, raised the pay of civil servants including the Army, called for a parliamentary commission to revise the Constitution and set June 24, 2011 as the date of a referendum. Mohammed VI bought off the protesters with subsidies that now cause financial problems for the government. Agriculture is sucked into these politics because there is a two tier agricultural system.
The Green Morocco initiative targets both small farmers and large-scale commercial farmers, but the level of support is unequal. The government’s program for small farmers encourages them to form co-ops through which they get access to financing for equipment and other subsidies so they can switch crops, form grains to fruit trees. The project has $2.5 billion for 840,000 small farmers. The large-scale commercial farmers are receiving subsidies for much more substantial equipment upgrades. The government set aside $9 billion for these projects and covers up to 80 percent of equipment expenses for the most modern farms.
Morocco’s agricultural cycle is all about an embedded power elite hanging on to power by spending what is needed to buy off frustrated, poor small plot farmers. The other part of the cycle is the subsidies wealthier farmers receive to establish modern large-scale farms which can produce the most profitable crops for the European export market. The government is using extensive resources to implement this two-tiered agricultural program and faces pressure from international lending organizations (IMF) to cut this type of spending in order to establish better fiscal policy and thereby attract foreign investment. It remains a repressive agricultural cycle.