Eight years ago, residents of Imider in Morocco’s rural southeast shut down a silver mining company’s water pipe on a nearby mountain to protest the damages to their health and livelihoods. This direct action turned into the longest sit-in protest encampment in Moroccan history.  Perched on a rugged mountain top, the camp has become a living archive of decades of struggle manifested in documents, drawings, poetry and songs.


 

Underneath the dark Saghro mountains east of Marrakesh lies the largest silver mine in Africa. The mine is located in Imider, one of the poorest regions in remote southeast Morocco.

Government privatization policies in the 1990s transformed Société Métallurgique d’Imiter (SMI), the national company exploiting the mine since 1969, into a private subsidiary of the giant Moroccan mining company Managem, which controls the mining industry and has investments in Africa, the United Arab Emirates and Europe. Managem is itself a subsidiary of Société Nationale d’Investisement (SNI), the large private Moroccan holding company controlled by the Moroccan royal family.[1] Despite being one of the most profitable companies in Morocco, Managem is not listed on the Casablanca Stock Exchange, although its operations are openly accessible through a sophisticated webpage. SMI produces over 200 tons of pure silver per year from its Imider mine.

Near the silver mine rises the 4,900-foot peak of Mount Alebban, home to the longest sit-in protest encampment in Moroccan history. The protest is led by the Movement on the Road ’96—whose name commemorates the imprisonment and death of Mustafa Ousbdan, a major activist in the 1996 protests against SMI. The camp on the mountain’s peak is the continuation of a direct-action protest that began on August 20, 2011 when villagers climbed Mount Alebban to shut off a valve on an SMI pipeline that was diverting water from the mountain’s reservoir to flush the silver mine.

The protest took place during Ramadan, when local households had been without water for weeks, and collective wells were drying up and crops dying. The pipeline was drawing 12 times the daily consumption of Imider’s 5,000 inhabitants.[2] Toxic waste runoff from the mine was also contaminating agriculture and harming residents’ health. Since 2011, protestors have created a system of permanent occupation on the mountain—with rotating occupiers, provisioned huts and a regular forum for community discussion—while keeping the valve shut.

Although most Moroccans could not locate Imider on a map, word about the struggle against the SMI has gradually reached activist, academic and media circles throughout the country and beyond. As a geographically contained camp, Imider is one of the most politically charged sites of protest in Morocco: It draws attention to the Moroccan royal family’s extensive stake in national industry and illuminates how today’s capitalism generates its profits through land grabs, resource extraction and the political containment of an indigenous population (who are Amazigh). The claim of indigeneity is central to the way activists mobilize against the mine and state power.

The Imider protest camp is thus a living witness to the conflict between extractive governance and Moroccan Amazigh claims for dignity and economic rights. It unmasks the quotidian entanglement of politics and profit with a damaged ecosystem and diminished human habitat. As a result, Imider has become one of Morocco’s most contained and policed spaces of protest—security agents and police keep the site under constant surveillance, using violent force at times. Yet, for over two decades, noise coming from the camp has slowly disrupted the silence about one of the longest struggles pitting a rural and mostly indigenous population directly against the oppressive machinery of the makhzen, the Moroccan term for the interlocking security-bureaucratic-economic ruling apparatus of the state.

Both the camp’s physical site and its online platforms document these complex political, economic and ecological entanglements. The camp itself is a repository of hundreds of documents, photographs, written statements, petitions and letters that create a paper trail of the mining industry in Morocco from the viewpoint of the lives affected by it. Maps and slogans are painted on the walls of the adobe huts, telling the story of decades of struggle since 1986. Its website and Facebook page contain announcements, updates and YouTube clips documenting life in the camp and testimonies about the environmental impact of fracking, drilling, stone crushing and sand quarries on local livelihoods.

This cumulative documentation produces a living counter-archive of history from the point of view of those fighting against Morocco’s particular form of authoritarian and extractive capitalism.[3] As a counter-archive, the Imider camp disrupts official and misleading government narratives sold at international conferences about its social and environmental responsibility by telling the story of failed promises, violence, lack of opportunity, dispossession and environmental degradation.

The Imider protest camp is thus a living witness to the conflict between extractive governance and Moroccan Amazigh claims for dignity and economic rights.

Unlike the archives of the powerful, it also documents disruption, contestation and claims for rights by those at the margins of nationhood, as the Imider activists put it. Noting the camp’s dramatic geography, social processes and related forms of cultural expression, my immersion in the Imider villages in 2018 allowed me to understand how the Imider camp serves as both an active site of protest and an important living record for writing histories of popular struggles against state power and extractive capitalism in Morocco.

 

A Landscape of Protest

 Imider is a semi-arid rural commune composed of seven villages whose inhabitants are members of the historically powerful tribal confederation of Aït Atta of mostly ethnic Amazigh indigenous to North Africa. The villages are spread on both sides of the National Road 10 linking the cities of Errachidia and Ouarzazate. Located at the foot of the High Atlas Mountains, Mount Alebban sits atop a water reservoir filled from melting snow. “Aman Iman, Water is Life” is an old Amazigh proverb that expresses the centrality of water for this dry region. It also sums up the heart of the popular struggle: Each attempt by the SMI to dig new wells or to extend their depth or extractive rate has led to periods of heightened protests—and state repression—in 1986, 1996, 2002, 2004, 2010 and 2011.

I visited the Imider protest camp on Mount Alebban on several occasions between April and July 2018, the first time embedded in an organized university trip after previous attempts to obtain a permit or climb unnoticed had failed. A core group of ten to 15 men are permanently stationed on the mountain. Their camp is completely self-funded through the contribution of villagers and a one dollar a month fee paid by each family.

Once a week, hundreds of men, women and children climb to the camp to take part in an agraw, which resembles a town hall meeting where decisions are made by consensus. Agraw is a reactivation of an older tribal practice, jma’a, a form of participative government originally open only to adult men but which now includes women and children. The assemblies are an occasion to verbally articulate the struggle and renew alliances and commitment to the cause.

Life in the mountain encampment itself exudes the feeling of being frozen in time. An old truck drives down the mountain to bring up water from the villages in tanks every morning. A few women climb the mountain to deliver homemade bread every few days. Young men fix and re-fix the old truck. Cables connected to a solar panel are checked every day. The temperature can get very hot during the day, and very cold at night. When the winds blow, they make it quite impossible for anyone to venture outside of their stone huts. It is worse when it snows. The huts make the encampment more bearable, but also less temporary. Except for the barking dogs, soccer-playing kids and machines being fixed, the camp feels rather quiet, safe and peaceful.

Because state security and police have chosen not to enter the camp, it also feels like an enclave of sovereignty, quite independent in its self-organization, finance, system of rules and programs. Mount Alebban enables a panoptical view of the movement of paramilitary officers staged down the mountain on National Road 10. One can see the type of security deployed during the day and check if security is tight or if it has been relaxed.

But while this may sound like a reversal of the panopticon, it is not: The camp is an enclave of sovereignty only as long as you are on the mountain. From the point of view of state security below, the camp is a site of containment.

A cabin at the base of the mountain provides a shelter for security agents in charge of monitoring the movement up and down the mountain but also functions as a point of surveillance for the Targuit well dug in 1986, situated across the security point. By stationing its forces below rather than on top of the mountain, security agents can closely watch and control access to the mountain according to the instructions of the day. They also document visitations to the camp, although the activists have laid down alternative paths that take visitors through the villages without being exposed to the security gaze. The hike from National Road 10 takes about 20 minutes; climbing through alternative paths takes over an hour. Many women climb up these paths for the weekly general assembly from the nearby villages. Others have to walk miles to reach the mountain and rarely go unnoticed because they typically walk in groups from the seven villages.

Thus, an entire security apparatus has been put in place to protect the mining company and dissuade protestors from disrupting the flow of extraction. While the now routine movement of the villagers on the mountain is rarely subject to questioning, any unusual movement could alert the authorities and lead to harassment or arrest.

State officials and embedded informants are dispersed throughout the region to provide intelligence from within the villages, which has led to the arrests of several men from the camp on mostly trumped up charges ranging from silver robbery and unlawful political activity to immoral and even sexual misconduct. Many remain under probation leaving them vulnerable to arbitrary detention or imprisonment at any time. The authorities make arrests on roads, in homes and in the villages, which indicates a strategy of isolating the mountain encampment in the form of a slowly unfolding siege. From the point of view of the makhzen this strategy may be a more cost-effective way of dealing with these protests in volatile times given the challenges posed by other social protests such as the Hirak in the north, the teacher’s strikes in many cities and other pockets of unrest throughout Morocco.[4]

 

A Living Archive

At the nexus of this geography of protest and containment, the protest camp itself has become a living archive of the last three decades of popular struggle with the state and the mining company. Maps, photos, slogans, Amazigh and Moroccan flags, paintings and inscriptions on walls of shelters, platforms and dismantled pipelines document and illustrate every move of the SMI’s mining operation, creating an aesthetic of resistance that draws, records and documents the various episodes and icons of the struggle.

This physical and virtual writing of history is mapped on graphs and walls, illustrated on Facebook and in written complaints, witnessed in women’s poetry and songs and in women’s and kids’ play performances and artwork. Together, these diverse modes of expression rewrite and narrate the story of authoritarian power and capitalist extraction seen by activists as a primary mode of engagement between the Moroccan state and its Amazigh indigenous population.

A map drawn on a rock, for example, provides a chronology of the most recent encounters. The map plots time on space to show the most heightened dates of protest during which negotiations and weeks of sit-in protests yielded few or no results, and ended with a forceful state intervention.

The year 1986 marks when the villagers first opposed the SMI’s attempt to drill the Targuit well into their major drinking water source. The state used force against the protesters, which included many women, and detained others just long enough for the company to dig the well.

Ten years later, in 1996, is when the villagers contested the SMI’s extensive use of water in a 45 day sit-in at the mine. They protested the marginalization of their region and its exclusion from job opportunities in favor of outsiders, resulting in many arrests. One of those arrested was Mustapha Ousbdan, who died only a few months after he was released from prison, giving the movement its name of Movement On the Road ‘96.

Another crucial date is 1996 because it marks the arrival of a new generation of activists—returning students from one of the most politicized universities in Morocco, the University of Fez. Those students brought with them the seeds of the Amazigh Cultural Identity movement to their villages. They also engaged in new modes of organizing including forming committees and discussion circles and open forums where everyone can participate. This circulation of political practices and ideas from the universities to the villages created a new contestation model that transformed the generational and gendered outlook of the struggle. Women’s voices became more central, which has meant that some elderly men as well as rural elites who used to make deals with SMI have been increasingly sidelined.

The year 2004 is another important date which marks when the company extended its use of the Targuit well despite an expiring permit, while also digging more wells across Mount Alebban. The SMI was thus able to take hold of the two unique sources of life for the villagers—their drinking water and their traditional irrigation system known as khattara, a sophisticated underground system that gradually brings water above ground for irrigation. The SMI’s aggressive reach beyond the controversial agreements that it had secured with local elites and without consultation with the population in 2004 is what led to the 2011 direct action sit-in and later permanent encampment of Mount Alebban.

In addition to the many documents available both in the camp and online about the struggle, the physical space of Mount Alebban also acts as a visual archive of the protest by providing a panorama of the struggle. Beyond the pipelines stretching along the mountain is a view of the mine and of the region’s villages and fields, as well as the security apparatus stationed below.

The intensity of the visual and emotional experience at the mountain top is rarely encountered in other protest sites. Mount Alebban also provides a breathtaking view of the meeting point of the Anti-Atlas and High Atlas Mountains, although this is not what activists want visitors to focus upon. Rather, they highlight the stark difference one can see between the parched and drying fields situated close to the mine and the green fields irrigated by the water protected by the encampment.

A mile away on the horizon are the sparkling chemical wastes left in open pits by SMI. To purify silver SMI uses two highly toxic chemicals, cyanide and mercury. The strong sun and wind sweeping across the Saghro mountains causes the deposits to evaporate, infusing the air while the chemicals spread over the villagers’ fields and households. The poor quality of crops and dying trees support claims that the water table is also contaminated. Villagers whose fields are the closest to the mine have already seen their cultures totally wiped out.

 

The Gender of Extraction

The harmful effects of authoritarian and extractive capitalism are not only marked through Imider’s visual geography and landscape. These effects are also embodied in increasing breathing problems, heart failure, cancer, skin rashes and aborted fetuses among the local inhabitants, often gendered in their impact. Village women are more exposed to these harmful effects due to their daily encounters with the water, plants and animals and their babies. In the women’s narratives, the story of silver extraction is told through their sick bodies, the weakened bodies of their children and their perishing livestock. Water and thirst, abundance and scarcity, health and sickness are the binaries through which elderly women contrast life before and life under the hegemony of the SMI’s mining operations.

Women are also, however, instrumental in the struggle. The number of women now surpasses that of men participating in public protests and meetings. Male migration in search of jobs, young men in school outside of the region and women’s caregiving responsibilities are major factors that explain, in part, why women have become more prominent in this struggle.

But adult women’s quotidian lives are also deeply and directly disrupted by water scarcity and mining activities. Because feeding children and livestock is primarily their responsibility, women are often forced to search for water in drying wells. These women are also carpet weavers and can see the impact of the mine on their disappearing plant-based colors. They mourn the disappearing plants and flowers that used to give their carpets a radiant look. Women also suffer from the imprisonment and unemployment of their sons, as well as from the absence of their husbands.

As a result, there are important differences in the way men and women speak about the mine and the broader struggle. While the young men managing the protest camp on the mountain have incorporated a universal language of rights, indigeneity and environmental justice, women draw on the same eco-sensibilities and imported language to focus on the more immediate effects upon their lives in the proximity of mining.

They weep for water and want to weave on Alebban. They also pray for the sons imprisoned by the struggle. They chant collectively while weaving, preparing for weddings and spending time together remembering their missed ones. These oral archives are part of the repertoire about silver—not only as ornaments proudly worn by women from this region, but also of silver as extractive of their lives and local resources.

There is an old Amazigh proverb, ‘Tar Izli Ur tamu’ (An event without a poem has never happened). Many of these oral archives are embedded in the longstanding tradition of poetry in the region called Timnadin. The poet Fadima, for example, illustrates the way that loss becomes an impetus to action in her poem “Weep for Water.”

Weep for Water

For land and water we still weep,

It is the heart, not the pupil that weeps.

It is the heart, not the pupil that weeps.

I think, I hesitate. What should I do?

Whoever wants to see me,

Will find me on top of Alebban.

Where I am performing my mission.[5]

 In another of her Timnadin poems, the centrality of weaving as an affirmation of local culture and women’s work in the face of the mine’s impact is also addressed.

Weave on a Mountain

I think I want to weave,

On top of a high mountain.

But, oh ball of yarn!

Who will take you back and forth? [6]

 These feminine eco-sensibilities also structure women’s songs during collective weaving parties and during wedding ceremonies. These activities are undertaken by an older generation of women whose knowledge of Arabic is basic or nonexistent and who have enjoyed very little education. They are chanting the struggle while some of their more educated daughters and sons are preparing university memoires on Imider. This repertoire of women’s poems contributes to the act of counter-archiving by placing women’s sensibilities—and bodily and emotionally lived experience—at the center of the Imider struggle.

The poet Aisha Abouh’s untitled poem pieces together various aspects of the Imider struggle, calling on the divine to aid in the struggle against Morocco’s particular form of crony and extractive capitalism that rules over their lives:

Oh Divine, help us in our struggle.

Oh Titsa waters, you are named by our ancestors,

And you’ve defied the traitors

The Movement has called the world

To help us shed the false accusations [she means the accusations of fornication, robbery and others]

Oh traitors, Cyanide has made us sick.

We will never forgive you.

The Divine is witness of the mine’s lies.

We came to the movement for justice,

And found a helicopter threatening us [in 2003, a military helicopter flew over the protest to intimidate the villagers]

And the Caid [local representative of the Ministry of Interior] threatening mothers with a gun

See what a man of the law looks like!

I thought Mount Alebban was infertile,

Until I came to build a shed on it.

The valve is heavier now with the locks we put on it.

Now the enemy can say what it wants!

Oh trees! Oh harvests! You can curse

Those who have taken water from underneath you.[7]

 


ENDNOTES

[1] SNI was renamed al-Mada in March 2018 to reflect its supranational reach, notably in Africa.

[2] See Congres Mondial Amizigh, “Imider: The Plundering of Natural Resources and Popular Resistance,” 2012. [French] Accessed at http://www.gitpa.org/web/AFN%20MAROC%20IMITER%20CMA%20.pdf.

[3] Koenraad Bogart, Globalized Authoritarianism: Megaprojects, Slums, and Class Relations in Urban Morocco (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018).

[4] Zakia Salime, “Precarious Teachers Strike for Public Education in Morocco,” Middle East Report Online, May 2, 2019.

[5] Fadma. Courtesy of Nadir Bouhmouch, translated by Ellias Terrass in coordination with the Movement on the Road ‘96.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Aisha Abouh. Courtesy of Nadir Bouhmouch, translated by Ellias Terrass in coordination with the Movement on the Road ‘96.

 

How to cite this article:

Zakia Salime "Protest Camp as Counter-Archive at a Moroccan Silver Mine," Middle East Report 291 (Summer 2019).
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