MAC: Mines and Communities

On a Moroccan Hill, Villagers Make Stand Against a Mine

Published by MAC on 2014-01-28
Source: New York Times,

On a Moroccan Hill, Villagers Make Stand Against a Mine

By Aida Alamijan

New York Times

24 January 2014

IMIDER, Morocco - On a hilltop nearly 5,000 feet high in the Atlas Mountains here, a tiny outpost has taken shape over the past two years. The small stone buildings are decorated gaily with graffiti, and there is an open-air gallery. Many doors bear inspirational inscriptions from people like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa. On the dam of a nearby reservoir, someone has painted the face of a local activist, now in jail on what the locals regard as trumped-up charges.

It is an unlikely spot for a settlement, but it was established with a purpose: to protest a mining company's expropriation of precious water supplies, as well as the pollution that results from the mining.

The inhabitants are drawn from the nearby municipality of Imider, 6,000 people scattered over seven villages and neighbor to the most productive silver mine in Africa.

But while the area may be rich in silver, it is home to some of the poorest people in Morocco.

The people of Imider (pronounced ee-me-DER) say they have grown to resent the mine because they get nothing from it except pollutants. So two years ago, some of them climbed up the hill and cut the water supply to the mine. Since then, they have occupied the hill as they continue to fight the Imiter Mettalurgic Company and, by extension, the king of Morocco, its principal owner.

"We were ready to talk," said Brahim Udawd, 30, one of the leaders of the protest movement, referring to the events that led to the occupation of the hilltop. "But nobody paid attention to us, so we closed the water valve. They take the silver and leave us the waste."

These days, the hilltop, Mount Alebban, is relatively calm. Women come daily to cook in the little stone houses and participate in the regular strategy meetings that the villagers hold.

"We have been here for two and a half years, and nobody is hearing our cry for help," said Mina Ouzzine, 40. "I voted yes for a new constitution because I hoped there will be change, more equality. We are only equal in poverty."

In 2011, when the Arab revolutions led to the fall of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, the Moroccan king, Mohammed VI, managed to stall the protests by offering constitutional overhauls that guaranteed more power to an elected government and more freedoms to Moroccans. But none of that has helped the people here.

While for some, the conflict of Imider is mostly ideological, others say that it is not just about ordinary people rising up to make their lives better but also part of a larger problem that is echoed in conflicts with big mining companies across the globe.

The occupation of the hill was set off in the summer of 2011 after students who were used to getting seasonal jobs were turned down. That led the other villagers - even those with jobs - to show solidarity and move to block the mine's production abilities. One of the main demands of the villagers is that 75 percent of the jobs at the mine be allocated to their municipality.

"The bigger the mine, the more capital intensive the industry and the fewer the jobs," said Gavin Hilson, who specializes in mining and development at the University of Surrey Business School. "Even if the policy in place is to create jobs, there are only so many jobs it can create."

Exactly what is happening with the water is in dispute. The villagers say they want the company held responsible for environmental damage that they say is the cause of disease, livestock fatalities and desertification.

"In the 1990s, I used to have trees, fruits, oil, almonds," said Bou Tahar, 70, a farmer. But they died after the mine began taking the water, he said, adding, "Since we cut the flow in 2011, our wells are starting to fill up again."

According to Mr. Hilson, these kinds of disputes are not uncommon. "If you're operating in a place like that with quite a few people living in the community, it would be suicidal to exhaust the place from its water supply or to reach a point where villagers become agitated over the consumption of water," he said. "It is always challenging to operate in dry environments. There are issues with water, with waste disposal and community development because it all revolves around water."

The company categorically denies the townspeople's accusations and says that an environmental impact study has proved that it is not contaminating the water supply or harming the environment. The company says that the mining was certified as meeting global environmental standards and that it has put in place irrigation systems for the farmers.

"We are very careful, and we don't pollute the water or the land around the mine," said Farid Hamdaoui, a manager at the mine. "We recycle 62 percent of the water we use, and we have authorization from the state to pump the water we use."

Company officials say their processing capacity dropped 40 percent in 2012 and 30 percent in 2013, after the villagers cut off one source of their water. These days, they use another source in an effort to make up the loss.

Mr. Hamdaoui said that despite having the king as the main shareholder, the company did not gain any special treatment from the government. He said the company was spending more than $1 million a year to build schools and to support community projects.

"We don't substitute for the state, but we work with the state in a proactive social program," he said. "The mine cannot unfortunately solve all the problems of unemployment in the region."

Still, the activists who refer to themselves as the "Movement on the Way of 96," a reference to a similar upheaval in 1996 that was crushed by the authorities, maintain that the company is in fact receiving favorable treatment from the state.

The governor and other elected officials declined to comment on the dispute, which settled into a stalemate after negotiations broke down in November.

After each meeting held at the foot of the hill, the villagers walk back home holding up three fingers - one for the Berber language, one for the land and one for mankind - hoping for someone to hear their call.

"The king forgot about us. He tours the country helping people, and he never comes to this region," said one woman. "He is our father, and he has forgotten about his children."

A version of this article appears in print on January 24, 2014, on page A10 of the New York edition with the headline: On Moroccan Hill, Villagers Make Stand Against a Mine.

Moroccan villagers step up actions against massive silver mine

Cecilia Jamasmie

7 February 2014

A group of Moroccan activists, who have been living on an occupation camp 5,000 feet high in the Atlas Mountains, to oppose the most productive silver mine in Africa, say they are ready to negotiate a settlement, but that no one is listening.

The ongoing occupation was brought back to the spotlight last week, after The New York Times published an in-depth feature on Imiter, home to the poorest people in the African country.

Since August 2011 they have been blocking some of the main wells supplying water for Imiter Metallurgic Company's operation. They claim the mine, in operations since 1969, is drawing more than its fair share of water and polluting what it uses.

Problem is, Imiter Metallurgic is a sister group of Managem, which is indirectly controlled by a holding belonging to Morocco's royal family.

But one of their main demands is related to jobs, as they want at least that 75% of the positions to be allocated to their municipality. The company has called such demands unrealistic.

Internal sources say processing capacity dropped 40% in 2012 and 30% last year, after the villagers cut off one source of their water. Currently they are using another source in an effort to make up the loss, reports Ethical Consumer.

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