Gender, Indigenous Knowledge, and Pastoral Resource Use in Morocco

Article excerpt

According to the Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture, the rangelands of southern Morocco are suffering from intense degradation and desertification, mostly because of "irrational" overstocking and overgrazing by pastoralists (ORMVA 1993). This claim, I believe, is largely a result of incorrect understandings of range ecology in arid environments (Ellis and Swift 1988; Warren 1995), topped by concern on the part of the United Nations and other national governments over desertification on a global scale (Thomas and Middleton 1994). Significant degradation and desertification from overstocking and overgrazing may not be occurring at all in Morocco.(1) Sweeping claims of degradation, though, are typical of pastoral-development projects and national rangeland policies throughout North and Sub-Saharan Africa that employ a conventional approach to environmental degradation in arid lands.

Much of the ongoing work on pastoralism and degradation in arid lands rests on two hypotheses that I contend are invalid. A first belief is that any improvement in livestock health, as from immunization programs, will inevitably act as a "constraint-releasing" intervention which will logically lead to larger herds (McCabe 1990) and, therefore, to overgrazing and desertification.(2) Inherent in this is a belief that herders lack the ability or knowledge to control varied aspects of their everyday life and practice. The second and related assumption, voiced nearly universally in work on the Middle East, is that women seldom work with livestock and have little or no power in decisions regarding natural-resource use.

My research explores how ethnoveterinary knowledge and practice (and their gendered nature) affect rangeland resource use among the pastoral nomadic Aarib in Morocco.(3) As a veterinarian and a geographer, I place site-specific research on ecological change into historical context. My goal, in doing so, is to define a more accurate understanding of local range ecology in a North African pastoral setting. I argue that women do, in fact, play a sizable role in the daily care of livestock, often have better veterinary knowledge than men have, and exert a negotiated power in resource-use decisions. Herders possess sophisticated ethnoveterinary skills, including indigenous knowledge of range ecology, which they bring to bear in making "rational" resource-use decisions. I incorporate the approach of political ecology which allows me to argue that where environmental degradation has occurred in the pastoral zones of Morocco, changes in national politics and international market forces, rather than herder "irrationality and overstocking," are the principal causes.(4)

As the country with the largest number of pastoral nomads in North Africa, Morocco affords a unique setting for this kind of research. Many nomadic pastoralists have settled in its western coastal plains and intensified their livestock production (Bencherifa 1986). But nomadic and seminomadic pastoralists who utilize local breeds, practice grazing systems that are extensive and transhumant, and employ indigenous veterinary medicine still thrive in other regions of Morocco (Fine 1990). One such group is the Aarib, the majority of whom live at the southern end of the Draa Valley. Although approximately 60 percent of the nomads there have become sedentary during the past twenty-five years, the territory utilized by the remaining nomadic portions of the Aarib extends from the Draa Valley in the west to the Tafilalt in the east (Ouchtou 1994). Their migration is seasonal, with the spring and summer spent in the eastern part of their territory and the autumn and winter in and around the southern part. The Aarib raise camels predominantly for milk, meat, and hair, which are used for subsistence and are traded or sold to the surrounding sedentary and transhumant populations with whom they have a long history of exchange [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. In addition to using "modern," government-sponsored veterinary treatments, the Aarib practice "traditional" techniques of animal health care (Ramadan 1996). …