“Before the intervention of MASEN […] these virgin arid lands were free of any activity, the wind blew on these mountains without moving the wind turbine blade and rivers flowed without being restrained by dams. MASEN, an inexhaustible force of development.”[1]

These arid lands, described as empty in a promotional video by the Moroccan Agency for Sustainable Energy (MASEN), consist of 3,000 hectares slated to host the largest solar energy complex in the world, Noor-Ouarzazate. Not mentioned in the glossy promotional materials, however, is the fact that 8,000 villagers lost their access to collective pasture in 2010 due to this massive land acquisition.

A model of the solar complex in the entrance hall of MASEN at Noor-Ouarzazate. Photo by Kelly Pemberton.

MASEN’s narratives about the area revolve around notions of “emptiness, aridity and waste,” which MASEN’s agents use to legitimate the significantly low purchase price of 15 cents per square meter.[2] Nevertheless, the deal was approved by the Ghassat Communal Assembly, which represents the seven Ait Ougrour Amazigh villages located a few miles away from the city of Ouarzazate in one of the poorest and most water-stressed enclaves of the southeast. While MASEN’s massive land grab promised development in return, the villagers explain that it also deprived their communities of “ancestral pasture, disrupting old paths of circulation between our villages and extending our travel time to Ouarzazate.”[3]

Created in 2010 as a private company with public funds, MASEN started as the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy and was renamed the Moroccan Agency for Sustainable Energy in 2016. It is the flagship project of the 2009 National Energy Strategy, a comprehensive policy to reverse Morocco’s quasi dependence on imported fossil fuel through the production of electricity from an energy mix of solar, wind and hydropower. The goal is to produce 42 percent of total energy from renewable sources in 2020 and 52 percent by 2030, combined with a 32 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. MASEN supervises the implementation of these goals by erecting renewable energy parks across Morocco, with an eye on Africa’s emerging markets and growing energy needs. In its Noor complex of four farms, MASEN uses a variety of complementary solar thermal technologies, including concentrating solar power systems (CPS) at Noor I and Noor II, a power tower system at Noor III and a photovoltaic system (PV) at Noor IV. After winning the public bid for energy production, a consortium led by the Saudi Arabian company ACWA Power is now developing these solar farms and is tasked with generating electricity for MASEN for 25 years.[4]

I first visited this flagship project in December 2017 as part of an ethnographic study of the Sulaliyyat movement, a nationwide mobilization of rural women for land rights. Since 2007, this mobilization has highlighted the importance of collective land to privatization policies and contested the postcolonial legal and patriarchal regime and institutions that oversee land grabs and revenue distribution. Estimated at 15 million hectares nationwide, collective land (aradi sulaliyya) is a gold mine for the state treasury since its privatization generates revenues that are kept and managed by the Tutelary Council of Collective Land, Majlis al Wissaya, nested in the Ministry of Interior.[5] This council has the political mandate to inject the revenues back into communities in the form of development projects. The 2010 massive land acquisition for the Noor project generated over $3.5 million, which was ostensibly designated for infrastructure, job opportunities and development in the Ait Ougrour villages, according to a Ministry of Interior official.[6]

Thus, MASEN is not only a sun harvesting company with global ambitions but also a development agency that generates a discourse on “sustainability” for local consumption.[7] With Noor, extractive governance and development come intertwined in farming initiatives, road paving, health care campaigns and schooling programs, among other projects. In this way, villagers have daily encounters with extractivism as development and with MASEN as a new governing authority. Development programs are also shaping gendered arrangements and quotidian life in the villages, while mediating power and authority and transforming residents’ relationships with their physical environments.

Development programs are also shaping gendered arrangements and quotidian life in the villages, while mediating power and authority and transforming residents’ relationships with their physical environments.
These interventions are enmeshed in temporal categories that suspend past marginalization and conceal systemic injustices and collective experiences of precarity to turn the villagers into desiring individual subjects, seemingly in charge of their own futures. Intertwined with development agendas, clean energy projects do more than grab land, they aim to reshape life and practices in rural communities through the economic rationalities of durability and sustainability, as regimes of truths to be enacted by born-again peasants. In the Ait Ougrour villages, these transformations take the form of a shift from pastoral practices and animal herding to small scale “ecological farming” that relies mostly on women’s learning and time commitment.

 

Land and Protests

 

Mobilizing an investment budget of over $9 billion, the Noor project has been the subject of numerous assessments by funding agencies, including the World Bank, African Development Bank and ACWA Power. They all stress the importance of reducing the perceived gap between the mega-futurist project and the surrounding population suspended between past marginalization and promises of development that have failed to materialize.[8] MASEN’s local development programs are not solely a reaction to these funding agencies’ mandates, however. They are also urgent responses to the population’s persistent demands for job opportunities in the plant. Solar energy promised global visibility, technology, funding and infrastructure to this development-starved region. My respondents said they “welcomed these promises” and hoped the project would “retain men in the villages, bring educated youth back for employment opportunities in the plant, and ease the burden of women who are usually left behind” as a residue population by emigrating male wage earners.

Equipped with a budget of over $6.8 million for local development, MASEN has undertaken some initiatives, such as building and paving roads, supervising farming initiatives, funding water canal repair, sponsoring school transportation and organizing annual health care campaigns. The most common expression that state bureaucrats use for this type of development work is désenclavement, a French expression for improving access or opening up a region. For the local residents, “opening” involves promises of a better life through stable and modern jobs in the solar plant that remain mostly unfulfilled. Nevertheless, MASEN’s massive land grab and unfulfilled promises did not generate the kind of sustained protests witnessed in Imider against silver mining that lasted for seven years (2011–2019) or in Ben Smim against the privatization of a water spring (2000–2007), to name just two examples.[9] Protests that did occur against land acquisition by MASEN were short-lived mobilizations that involved mostly men and which quickly shifted into competition among residents to secure one of the 2,000–3,000 jobs that MASEN had promised them on the construction site.[10]

Alongside local desires for development, job expectations generate what I call nodes of affective entanglement between the villagers and MASEN that crystalize around its Sustainable Development of Territories Department (SDTD). In addition to overseeing small-scale projects of farming and animal husbandry, the SDTD governs people’s hopes and frustrations—the affective and temporal dimensions of life in the vicinity of Noor.

In addition to overseeing small-scale projects of farming and animal husbandry, the Sustainable Development of Territories Department governs people’s hopes and frustrations—the affective and temporal dimensions of life in the vicinity of Noor.
Living a few miles away from a mega-futurist project means being propelled into the future, one that promises to curb the time gap between the villagers’ quotidian spaces of abandonment and the hyper-modern site of concentrated power.

I experienced these gaps during my first trip from the Ouarzazate airport to Noor in 2017. My taxi driver shared snapshots of how the city of 50,000 inhabitants feels to its residents. Ouarzazate “always fails to deliver on its promises,” he said, while mourning a vanishing movie industry and blaming the city for not retaining the tourists “for whom Ouarzazate is merely a gateway to the desert.” I spoke about my research and interest in Noor, but his response took me by surprise. Solar energy felt more “like an abstraction” to him. “The time of hope and enthusiasm is over,” he said. My taxi driver was eager to speak about increasing rent prices and growing economic disparities as the most immediate effects of Noor on Ouarzazate. As the locals are left behind, MASEN’s Moroccan and foreign elites have become the city’s most desirable inhabitants because of their buying power, he contended.

My taxi driver did not have much to say about solar energy, finding little benefit since his own electricity bill remains high and because he “pays for but cannot drink” the water due to pollution. But hopes were growing that a newly built dam, Moulay Ali Sherif-Ouarzazate, on the Tiyiwine river, would ease pressure on the al-Mansour Eddahbi Dam, which was entirely appropriated by MASEN first for the construction phase and subsequently for the ongoing cleaning of the solar reflectors and cooling of the steam in the turbine electricity production process. To respond to these needs, a water storage tank with a total capacity of 30,000 cubic meters was built on the site, generating hundreds of temporary jobs.

 

Traveling Across Securitized Time

 

Traveling from Ouarzazate to MASEN is a trip through uneven geographies and conflicting temporalities. The massive land grab disrupted old itineraries, pastoral practices and economic and social ties between the Ait Ougrour villages. A 13-mile paved road built by MASEN replaced the rocky tracks that villagers used in their circulation between villages or to reach the city of Ouarzazate by donkey or mule. The road abuts the fenced border of the Noor facility, highlighting geographic frictions and contour lines between a hyper-modern institution and its surrounding villages, all while smoothing MASEN agents’ trips to the sites of their development projects. Along this road stand 20 military posts that serve as a human shield alongside the metal enclosure, sealing off the entire solar plant site and surveilling movement along its extended border 24 hours a day. All of Morocco’s energy-generating plants and infrastructure are considered strategic military installations, making the area around them military zones.

The residents experience this securitized frontier during their daily movements between villages and on commutes to Ouarzazate—the city of their work, market activities, education and health care. A 200-meter-high security tower looms over the paved road like a panopticon eye. Located inside of the Noor facility, it is visible from nearly all the surrounding villages.

A 200-meter-high security tower looms over the paved road like a panopticon eye. Located inside of the Noor facility, it is visible from nearly all the surrounding villages.
It is equipped with a rotating camera with a night visibility of over 18 miles. The local administration of Ghassat, headed by the Ministry of Interior’s chief appointee (qiada), is also located on the same road, thus blurring the boundaries between state power and extractivist governance. MASEN and the qiada closely coordinate to regulate unwanted traffic on the road and to authorize trips to the villages by outside visitors. Under such pervasive surveillance it is no surprise that the atmosphere feels heavy, that people feel watched and that the ability of residents to openly express discontent is limited. More importantly, promises of development shift discontent away from quotidian dispossession and propel the villagers into a future seemingly of their own making as they participate in ecological farming, as proposed by MASEN, while adhering to regular assessments of their own progress.

 

Governing Hope is Governing Time

 

Time is embedded in the renewable energy development mission through the category of sustainability and is a gendered sphere of identification for women. Even though MASEN’s small scale farming projects do not specifically target them, more than 75 percent of these programs’ beneficiaries are women. Hisham and Fatema, two development agents, stated that women “combine the qualities of endurance, bodily engagement, desire to learn, with restricted mobility.”[11] While farming initiatives mostly target women as a stable population in the villages, men’s dreams of “real” job opportunities with MASEN, or one of its affiliated companies, never vanish.

For women, the necessary task of governing uncertainty also means governing time: the time of employment, the time of the husband’s unemployment, the wait time, the waste time, the water time and the time of hope.
The men I interviewed did not see agriculture “as a real job, or a serious source of revenue,” but simply as “complementary to a more stable source of income” and therefore are content to “leave it to women.” Hence, men apply, reapply, wait and navigate temporary jobs, mainly as construction workers, like Hamid who won several short-term contracts on the construction site before ending up as a cleaning person in the kitchen, another temporary contract. The burden of this uncertainty and the experience of precarity is shared by men and women. But the burden of making development projects successful falls more on women who are less mobile than men. For women, the necessary task of governing uncertainty also means governing time: the time of employment, the time of the husband’s unemployment, the wait time, the waste time, the water time and the time of hope.

A pilot project of ecological farming in Izerki, 2018. Photo by the author.

For MASEN, managing time is also about managing hopes and frustrations as it oversees bureaucratic processes for handling requests, short-term contracts and job complaints while residents wait for positive responses. These nodes of affective entanglements provide MASEN with a governing power that is manifested in its ability to maintain a relatively peaceful environment while it extracts massive amounts of water, land and labor. In these entanglements MASEN operates as a proximity welfare state, governing not only energy production but also the quotidian daily life of the villagers who are at the same time the object of multiple interventions and the subjects of their own desire for development. The prospects, however slim, of job opportunities at MASEN or at one of its subcontracting companies keeps residents in check, while small farming projects generate a few market opportunities and activate people’s imagination of new economic possibilities. But discontent about unfulfilled promises emerged in my conversations with both men and women since job opportunities at Noor are diminishing as the construction phase winds down. Once completed the site will be run by no more than 40 highly qualified engineers and technicians.

In 2018, a few farming initiatives were under way. I visited a pilot project in Izerki where six women were learning the tools of ecological farming as conceived and supervised by AGRISUD, a French non-governmental organization commissioned by MASEN. A development agent explained that the project consisted of the construction of proper barns to organize animal husbandry in a modern fashion along with training the women in the use of specific containers for animal feed, the process of building compost and how to rationalize water usage. The women were proud to pull out their accounting books and speak about their progress in literacy classes, as they were now able to track their expenses and keep records. Khadija, a farmer, spoke about a near future in which she would be able to grow herbs, sell them in the market and make a profit, according to the freshly learned market rationality of “costs and benefits.”

 

Solar Power Viewed from Its Margins

 

These farming initiatives notwithstanding, frustrations have grown about Noor as a project that promised more than it delivered. For instance, although electrification programs in rural Morocco have been steadily progressing since the end of the 1990s, one resident confirmed that in his village alone, “40 homes still lack connection to the national grid, and the average monthly collective electricity bill for pumping drinking water approaches $500 for residents.”[12] My respondents fail to understand “why MASEN does not offer roof panels to ease the financial burden of its neighbors.” They question why the massive energy farm “serves Europeans and Africans” but “not those living one mile away.” In Ait Ougrour, like in most villages of the Southeast Administrative Region, residents rely on pre-paid electricity cards they must recharge in Ouarzazate. Households’ daily access to potable water is also minimal, and water tables are receding alarmingly.

There is also a firm belief that the physical installation of millions of solar panels and mirrors—synchronically moving to face the sun—retains and reflects heat, thus transforming the surrounding villages into a veritable greenhouse, merely absorbing the heat without benefiting from its promised energy. Increasing temperatures, weather variability, drought and water scarcity are partially attributed to Noor. The villagers feel the impact of climate change, which ironically sustains the belief that the solar energy farm is worsening the condition of the villagers. Instead of providing them with real opportunities, it is stripping them of a promised better future.

 

Author’s Note: Research for this project was supported by a Fulbright Scholar Fellowship on Gender and Land Rights in Morocco (2017–2018).

 

[Zakia Salime is associate professor in the departments of sociology and of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Rutgers University.]

 

 


 

Endnotes

 

[1]La chaîne de valeurs de MASEN,” YouTube, February 28, 2018.

[2] Author interview with MASEN agents, December 2017.

[3] Author interviews with villagers, Taslemant, December 2017.

[4] Hammouchene Hamza, “Desertec: The Renewable Energy Grab?” The New Internationalist (March 2015).

[5] See a critique of advanced regionalism by Mona Atia and Said Samlali, “Government Efforts to Reduce Inequality in Morocco Are Only Making Matters Worse,” Middle East Report Online, March 24, 2021.

[6] Author interview, Rabat, April 2018.

[7]REN, A New Social Leverage,” MASEN Panel at COP22, Marrakech, Morocco, October 11, 2016. [French]

[8]Ouarzazate Solar Power Complex, Phase 1, Morocco, Specific Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, Volume 1,” 5 Capitals Environmental and Management Consulting (December 2012).

[9] Zakia Salime, “Protest Camp as Counter-Archive at a Moroccan Silver Mine,” Middle East Report 291 (Summer 2019).

[10] Karen Eugenie Rignall, “Solar Power, State Power and the Politics of Energy Transition in Pre-Saharan Morocco,” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 48/3 (2016), Atman Aoui, Moulay Ahmed el Amrani, Karen Rignall, “Global Aspirations and Local Realities of Solar Energy in Morocco,” Middle East Report 296 (Fall 2020).

[11] Author interview, Izerki and Ouarzazate, December 14, 2017.

[12] Author interview, Ouarzazate, January 5, 2018.

 

How to cite this article:

Zakia Salime "Life in the Vicinity of Morocco’s Noor Solar Energy Project," Middle East Report 298 ( ).
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