Conservation and development – socio-cultural considerations

My conservation project is based in Bouhachem in the region of Tangier-Tétouan in north Morocco.  It is a remote mountainous area with the last extensive area of mixed oak forest in the region.  The forest is home to the Endangered Barbary macaque and I initiated a research and conservation project in 2009. Ten villages are located on the periphery of the forest. These village communities are marginalised and suffer various disadvantages because of their physical location. Part of my research was to discover the historical, political and social influences in the context of past activities by outside agencies in the area in order to facilitate the development of conservation strategies to the local situation.

 

Bouhachem is in line to be upgraded to Natural Park status.  In preparation for the expected rise in tourism this upgrading will bring, some development NGOs in collaboration with the regional authorities are driving development projects with variable results. For example, two villages (called Village 1 and village 2 to preserve their anonymity), were the recipients of fuel-efficient bread ovens. The idea behind the ovens is to reduce the amount of wood being used for fuel and to reduce the amount of time women spend collecting the wood is perceived by outside agencies as time-consuming and arduous.

 

According to the oven manufacturer, each one is meant to be shared by 5 – 6 households and the villagers must work together to build and maintain a shelter for their oven. A woman from Village 1 told me that “We don’t want these ovens as we all [each household] have our own.” I suggested that a fuel efficient oven would require less work collecting firewood but she laughed and pointed to the store of large store of dead wood around her house “We have plenty of wood, that’s what the forest is for”. Her remark suggests that villagers perceive no shortage of firewood. Social factors might also explain the women’s resistance to the ovens as another woman told me:

We don’t mind collecting the wood; we all go together and sing as we work.

The outside agency responsible for the project failed to consider whether the collection of firewood could have positive social significance for village women. To date, neither village has used the ovens which remain where they were placed on delivery. Development workers were left frustrated at the women’s disregard of the ovens and were puzzled by what they perceived as the women’s reluctance to decrease their workload. It is unsurprising that some NGO employees express their frustration towards the villagers negatively. One told me:

The villagers are impossible to deal with as they are stubborn and don’t want to change or listen to new ideas and they won’t work together.

Villagers are well-accustomed to working together, fighting fires, and collectively herding their goats. The employee’s perception of intransigence may stem from the villagers’ reactions to the imposition of development initiatives on villages without prior consultation which might have identified the social significance of firewood collection for village women. It is thus imperative for conservation NGOs wishing to become involved in development work to understand that social as well as cultural mechanisms may affect project outcomes.

 

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