Since the Fifth World Parks Congress in Durban (2003) and the Seventh COP on Biological Diversity in Kuala Lumpur (2004), the definition of protected areas has evolved. Now, the definition incorporates principles of participation and inclusion, as well as traditional and local knowledge. This newfound recognition on the international scene shed light on the role of non-state actors, including indigenous peoples and local communities, as guarantors of conservation, and marked a decisive turning point in the evolution of international policies on this issue. Despite the growing awareness of the importance of biodiversity conservation and the role played by local communities to this end, national legislation and policies in Morocco do not yet give due recognition to areas conserved by local communities. Developed around the case study of a traditional natural resource management regime—the agdal—practiced by communities of the Moroccan Atlas, this piece highlights the extent to which traditional modes of managing common-pool resources (CPR) are compatible with a government’s strategy to decentralize natural resource management. Despite the benefits that community conserved areas and territories represent for maintaining ecosystems, traditions, and livelihoods, as well as their advantages in terms of decentralization, these practices are under threat due to a lack of policies and programs directly supporting or recognizing communities' agency over local natural resources.
"People dependent upon renewable natural resources have evolved ways of managing them properly. When they have failed to do so, the people, the resources, or both have disappeared."
— MS. Swaminathan, 1986
Since the Fifth World Parks Congress in Durban (2003) and the Seventh COP on Biological Diversity in Kuala Lumpur (2004), the definition of protected areas has evolved. Protected areas (PAs) now incorporate principles of participation and inclusion, as well as traditional and local knowledge. This newfound recognition on the international scene shed light on the role of non-state actors, including indigenous peoples and local communities, as guarantors of conservation, marking a decisive turning point in the evolution of international policies on this issue. In 2010, the Moroccan government introduced Law 22-07 to strengthen its network of national PAs, initiated in the 1930s under the French protectorate. This legislation would cover all of the country’s biologically diverse and unique ecosystems.  In parallel, the 2011 Constitution made decentralization an essential component of the Kingdom's territorial governance and development strategy. This measure was intended to allow for better management of the territories and a more appropriate allocation of resources to regional and local actors, including those in charge of natural resources. Despite the growing awareness of the importance of biodiversity conservation and the role played by local communities to this end, national legislation and policies in Morocco do not yet give due recognition to areas conserved by local communities.
Through the agdal—a traditional forest management regime practiced by communities in the Moroccan Atlas—this paper examines the interplay between traditional modes of managing common-pool resources (CPR) and governmental natural resource management. Despite the benefits that community conserved areas and territories represent for maintaining ecosystems, traditions, and livelihoods, and their role in furthering the decentralization of resource management, these practices are under threat because government policies and programs do not sufficiently support or recognize communities' agency over local natural resources. Specifically, community conserved areas in Morocco are not yet explicitly integrated into national environmental laws and policies, nor are they part of the national PA network, though they receive partial recognition through other laws and policies (Bendella, 2019). This paper analyzes the historical and current role that the agdal has played in the resilience of rural communities in Morocco. It explores the nature of interactions between endogenous (local communities) and exogenous (state and regional administration) actors, shedding light on the conflicting CPR management regimes that ensue.
This analysis draws on a theory of sustainably-governed and self-organized CPR offered by Elinor Oström, which was a response to Garrett Hardin’s 1968 Tragedy of the Commons. The tragedy, according to Hardin, lies in the individuals’ rational economic strategy to consume according to their self-interest, resulting in the depletion of the resource in a “pasture open to all”. To avoid a tragedy, Hardin argues, access to the commons must be controlled, either through state intervention or privatization. In Governing the Commons, Elinor Oström describes forms of collective ingenuity that allow groups to escape the tragedy of the commons that Hardin described (1990). Oström undermines policymakers’ presumption that individuals are unable to organize themselves or that they need to be organized by external authorities by developing a theoretical explanation of successful self-organized and self-governed CPR. Oström develops a set of seven conditions that help to account for the robustness of such institutions in sustaining CPR and gaining compliance over time, namely (1990, 90):
- Clearly defined boundaries;
- Congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions;
- Collective choice arrangements;
- Graduated sanctions;
- Conflict-resolution mechanisms;
- Minimal recognition of rights to organize.
The traditional Moroccan agdal system fulfills all seven criteria for a robust community-based CPR management structure. However, a growing number of threats (weakening of customary authorities, rural-urban migration, insufficient funds, insecure tenure rights, etc.) coupled with a lack of recognition of community conserved areas as key elements of the preservation of the country’s biocultural diversity, threaten the sustainability of this system and its survival as a whole.
Governing Resources in Morocco
Natural resource governance since the Protectorate
The period from 1912 until 1956, when Morocco was under a French protectorate, saw the creation of many dahirs (decrees) that imposed the French model of governance. Consecutively, these dahirs regulated land registration (1913), collective lands (1924), public domain (1914), state property (1916), the integration of water resources into the public hydraulic domain (1914), the conservation and exploitation of forests (1917), and mining (1951), to name but a few. They placed lands and natural resources under state control and entrenched the role of the administration in matters that previously pertained to local authorities. These decrees were meant to restore the former state of this allegedly “degraded nature” (Hammi et al., 2010). This sentiment was part of a common narrative that nomadic and indigenous over-exploitation of the land had depleted a formerly lush and abundant landscape. Through these reforms, the French aimed to abolish customary law (azref) and to dismantle the political, economic, and legal institutions of traditional communities. This system, inherited from the colonial period, persists in independent Morocco, which has not repealed many of these laws bequeathed by the French protectorate.
The dahir explicitly recognizes the existence of social and ethnic groups and their right to collectively own and exploit the land.
Despite de jure rights over resource protection and exploitation in Morocco falling exclusively onto the state, local customary law and practice retain a dominant position throughout most of the country, in practice and the collective mind. Weak enforcement of state law and the partial recognition of these entities in a number of these decrees have allowed local customary practices, like the agdal, to endure. For example, the dahir of April 27, 1919, which still organizes the administrative supervision of communities and regulates the management and disposal of collective property, provides a legal framework for the persistence and perpetuation of these community groups and their institutions. The dahir explicitly recognizes the existence of social and ethnic groups and their right to collectively own and exploit the land. While it also acknowledges traditional modes of exploitation and designates such lands as unseizable, this dahir limits the right to collective land to a right of use, on a collective basis, and subjects its exercise to the supervision of the state (Amharech & Mahdi, 2020; Bendella, 2019).
Over the past decade, Morocco has undergone profound change. In 2011, amid upheaval in the Arab world, the monarchy was in turn targeted by a wave of protest, embodied by the February 20 Movement. Among other things, the accelerated pursuit of an already initiated regionalization process was part of the monarchy's response to civil society’s grievances (Bennafla & Seniguer, 2011). Article 1 of the ensuing 2011 Moroccan Constitution defines the Kingdom’s territorial organization as decentralized, based on “advanced regionalization.” The implementation of this decentralization is carried out through regional assemblies with essential competencies in the fields of economic development, training and education, employment, rural development, transport, culture, tourism, energy, water, and the environment. Framework Law 99-12 of March 6, 2014, and Organic Law 111-14 of July 5, 2015, together form the legal setup for this collaboration between the central government and regional administration on matters relating to, among others, the preservation of the environment and the sustainability of natural and cultural heritage (Hamdaoui, 2017). However, in practice, this joint strategy development has been limited due to overlapping competencies, an unclear mandate for regions regarding the environment, and heavy financial reliance on the central administration by the regions. This has led to duplication of measures, wasted resources, and mixed-up public discourse (Hamdaoui, 2017).
The 2010 revision of its PA legislation highlighted a dual willingness of the Kingdom to align with international standards of conservation and to decentralize further its natural resource management. Law 22-07 on protected areas requires broader consultation and participation of different stakeholders (ministerial departments, local authorities, civil society organizations) in the process of creating and managing protected areas. This law was also supposed to cover not only national parks but also other globally recognized categories of protected areas, including community conserved areas and territories (ICCAs). However, while it facilitates local community involvement in decision-making around PAs, it does not yet rightfully recognize community conserved areas and territories. The lack of recognition by the central government of the role played by these communities and their practices to preserve traditional means of livelihood while at the same time conserving the country’s unique biodiversity, should they wish to be recognized as such, is a missed opportunity for the country. As Morocco continues to expand its network of PAs to achieve the conservation objectives it has committed to, its strategy would be strengthened by measures supporting the customary rights, knowledge, and practices of local communities.
A complex apparatus for traditional governance of resources: the agdal system
The term agdal designates both a mode of management as well as the spatial area to which deferred grazing or exploitation measures are applied. The primary goal of the agdal is to conserve resources in forests and pastures for future use or in case of extreme weather events (Auclair et al., 2011). Customary institutions serve as a forum for communities to designate common property spaces and regulate the use of and access to them, which may be either immutable or periodically renegotiated (Genin & Simenel, 2011, 260).  More specific rules may be defined by the communities collectively regarding, among other things, the periodicity of use, the quantity of product harvested, the division of the agdal into sectors to allow rotational cutting, and the tree species to be cut (Auclair et al., 2011, 4). The amghar n'touga or “chief of grass” is designated by the community as responsible for controlling the almous (high altitude pastures) but their role also extends to the management of inter-community conflicts, when rangelands are coveted by several groups (Es-Siari, 2019). Resources laying beyond the scope of the agdal are open year-round for exploitation by several entities (Auclair et al., 2011, 4). Resources laying beyond the scope of the agdal are open year-round for community members to collect resources necessary for their livelihoods, which may lead in turn to higher pressure and degradation of these zones. Customary assemblies may arbitrate beyond the agdal on specific rules to maintain exclusive control of the area and/or to limit some forms of resource depletion. Agdals are still present and practiced in the pastoral communities of Morocco, including in the Aït Atta, the Mgoun, the Aït Seddrate, the Aït Marghad, the Aït Mguil, Iraklaoune, the Aït Seghrouchene, the Aït Youssi, and the Zemmour of central Morocco (Es-Siari, 2019).
According to Elinor Oström’s principles for sustainable governance of CPR, the agdal system is a seemingly complete and well-rounded apparatus (1990, 90). The agdal has clear boundaries defined in time and space and specific segments of the rightsholder communities are granted exclusive rights of control, access, and exploitation. Moreover, the non-exploitation or respite period in the agdal was developed to adapt to the specific environmental, climatic, and socio-economic constraints and to provide sufficient reserves for more critical times, highlighting the congruence of this system with local livelihoods. The process by which the agdal is defined, in practical and spatial terms, guarantees collective choice arrangements as its parameters are discussed, agreed upon, and regulated by local customary assemblies. An extensive quota system is also put in place and decided upon by the customary assemblies and designated guardians are in charge of the monitoring and the enforcement of the rules. Users who violate the agdal operational rules are fined or handed over to the local authorities where they will face graduated sanctions depending on the seriousness and context of the offense. In case of conflict, customary assemblies will serve as a conflict-resolution mechanism, a forum to resolve disputes. Finally, local communities have minimal rights of ownership over the lands and resources that they collectively own; however, these rights are being challenged by a decentralization strategy and by the lack of recognition of these communities as custodians of the country’s biocultural diversity.
Nonetheless, the complexity and strength of the agdal system and institutions have guaranteed these communities autonomy, as well as the preservation of their resources and cultural identity.
The absence of recognition by national legislation and public policies translates into a lack of integration of issues related to areas and territories conserved by local communities into multi-sectoral laws. Nonetheless, the complexity and strength of the agdal system and institutions have guaranteed these communities autonomy, as well as the preservation of their resources and cultural identity. To some extent, the vital role of the agdal in the survival of these rural communities is one of the main reasons why these populations have continued to comply with such a governance system. Indeed, regardless of the strict regulations associated with the agdal, people have been eager to conserve the resources to transmit their biocultural heritage (Auclair et al., 2011, 8).
The Strength of Traditional Resource Governance
The strength of the agdal lies in its effectiveness as a tool for immediate conservation of resources, coupled with its ability to preserve resources for use in anticipation of critical periods (i.e., in times of emergency or particular environmental stress). Flexibility is baked into the agdal system. It has the capacity to self-correct so that any particular governance framework can be reworked to adjust to emerging socio-environmental developments (Dominguez & Benessaiah, 2017). Composed of locally developed rules and practices and implemented by the decision-makers themselves, agdals are the result of the accumulation of local ecological knowledge, making them flexible and innovative.
To understand the agdal system, one must understand the role that the local environment plays at the nexus between resource exploitation and conservation, and the social, political, and spiritual organization of these communities (Genin & Simenel, 2011; Michon et al., 2007). For these communities, CPRs are at the heart of social and political organization as one’s affiliation with different groups (tribe, douar, lineage) involves being granted rights (access to collective goods) and having to fulfill obligations (participation in the financing, maintenance or management of these goods) to defend common goods and interests (Es-Siari, 2019). The tribe has been the center of political, economic, and social life in Morocco for centuries, and is still very present in the most remote areas of the Kingdom: despite having been replaced administratively by the “commune,” the tribe still constitutes a crucial element of rural life (Es-Siari, 2019). The practice of agdal in the Atlas of Morocco is thus an integral part of the resilience of traditional communities in a highly decentralizing state, which reinforces the role of the commune and reduces the agency of the local groupings. In this sense, it can be understood that the local communities have shaped their natural environment to create and maintain a socio-ecological balance.
Beyond the intrinsic value of the resources, the agdal has become part of the community’s heritage. It plays a key role in the social reproduction of traditions across generations, even in the face of recurring attempts to undermine this customary framework. In a documentary produced by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on an agdal located in the Oukaimeden (High Atlas), a local shepherd notes: “Our main objective is to protect this natural treasure and preserve this ecological system. These are our traditions and we continue to practice them without any external administration. We take care of our land. It is the heritage of our ancestors. We have no land except the agdal of Oukaimeden.” (UNDP, 2018). The shepherd's remarks capture the interconnectedness between social and ecological resilience present in such natural resources-dependent societies and reflect the concept called “nature as patrimony” (Barrière et al., 2005; Ollagnon, 2000). As such, the integral nature of the agdal to the lives and livelihoods of those that practice it, as a means to preserve resources, can explain why it has remained so resilient over time.
Preserving Customary Resource Governance in an Evolving Institutional Framework
Representing nature: conflicting visions of the “ideal resource management”
As the agdal and other customary means of resource governance evolved through the ages, they were confronted with actors carrying different and often contrasting understandings and representations of natural resources. Resources and the value given to them, by different actors and in different places, are intrinsically linked to shifting social, economic, and political horizons. Such values permeate each stakeholder’s vision of the ideal resource management objectives and practices that should be sought after. On the one hand, for the state foresters, the objective is twofold—resource conservation and timber production cycles lasting more than a year—with an overarching principle of controlling forest land tenure and minimizing anthropogenic (i.e., originating in human activity) pressure on the resources by local users (Genin & Simenel, 2011, 264). This vision excludes the management of the terrain and its species by local communities, asynchronous with these objectives due to year-long reliance on forest resources. On the other hand, the local communities perceive the forest as “resource-spaces” (Auclair et al., 2011), inextricably linked to the survival of their livelihoods and the general organization of the communities under increased environmental, climatic, and socio-economic pressures. Although biodiversity conservation is rarely expressed as an explicit objective for the local communities, such practices have instinctively and naturally been taken into account in their utilitarian approach to nature. In this sense, the agdal system moves beyond the nature-culture rupture and presents characteristics of a social-ecological system with strong adaptive and resilience undertones (Genin & Simenel, 2011). In other words, the sustainability of these communities’ livelihoods is intertwined with that of their local resources: through these conservation practices, the cultural and traditional heritage of these communities can be preserved, and vice-versa.
Shared forest governance: the “social dilemma” of recognition
These narratives, in promoting external intervention, which is often also emotionally and socially detached from the realities on the ground, tend to rid the local populations not only from the control of their lands but also of their cultural heritage and know-how. In Morocco, the central government’s various attempts throughout the years to intervene in the local governance of collective resources—through the limitation of local jurisdictions during the colonial rule and the attempt to reinstate a unified legal system after the independence—have continuously eroded and threatened the capacity of these traditional assemblies and weakened their ability to enforce the rules and practices that had previously been collectively decided upon. Defined by the strife between an exogenous institutional system and an endogenous community-based regime, the management of natural resources by local communities in Morocco is yet another example of how a mismatch between state-based policies and traditional means of managing natural resources can result in a twofold system of forest management of both “local” and “legal” means of administration (Genin & Simenel, 2011, 265). This juxtaposition of norms and practices has led to the difficult implementation of either practice and has fueled resentment between the central government and local communities.
In trying to identify the root cause for this strong asymmetry of power and competency, we must go back to the fact that the authority of the rights holders and of the local assemblies from which they derive are not fully recognized. While these communities enjoy a minimal recognition of rights to organize, the weakening of customary authorities, as well as the lack of recognition of community conserved areas as key elements of the preservation of the country’s biocultural diversity may be impeding the durable governance of CPR. In pushing for a more decentralized organization of its administration, the Moroccan government neglected the de facto role of the customary institutions in charge of the governance of resources. By not recognizing the actual value of such an organization not only in terms of conservation of its resources but also regarding socio-political resilience of isolated and rural communities, the Moroccan government is missing the opportunity to maximize the impact as well as the relevance of its decentralization strategy.
Policy Context and Discussion
In the early 2000s, a series of international conventions and discussion opened the way for a new, more inclusive, and participatory definition of protected areas, particularly through the recognition of the role of non-state actors, including indigenous and local populations, as agents of conservation (Balasinorwala et al., 2004). The discourse on biocultural diversity has also been a turning point with regards to the recognition of indigenous and community conserved areas (ICCAs). Brought to light by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the concepts of biocultural diversity and ICCAs have broadened the notion of biodiversity to include traditional knowledge and practices, suggesting an intrinsic link between biological diversity and cultural diversity. This new discourse has contributed to a shift in the perceptions of the connection between human societies and the natural environment, underlining the integration of these two spheres rather than the separation between and the exploitation of one by the other.
The IUCN and CBD now recognize four broad governance types for protected areas: governance by the government, shared governance by diverse rights holders and stakeholders together, governance by private entities (often landowners), and governance by indigenous peoples and/or local communities (sometimes referred to as ICCAs or “territories of life”) (Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2013). The IUCN defines indigenous and community conserved areas and territories (ICCAs) as “natural and/or modified ecosystems, containing significant biodiversity values, ecological benefits, and cultural values, voluntarily conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities, both sedentary and mobile, through customary laws or other effective means” (Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2013).  First mentioned during the 5th World Parks Congress in Durban (2003), ICCAs are now recognized as essential elements of a response to the loss of biodiversity while respecting the sustainable use of resources by traditional communities.
A leading international actor, the IUCN has adopted and promoted protected areas policies that respect the rights and interests of local populations, and have developed tools to facilitate their recognition. Several international treaties, notably the CBD, now recognize that the livelihoods of indigenous and local communities are highly dependent on the exploitation of natural resources. Article 8(j) of the CBD commits each of its 168 signatories to “respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and promote their wider application with [the indigenous and local communities’](...) approval and involvement”, subject to its national legislation (CBD, 1992). Article 10 completes these dispositions stating that each contracting party shall, as far as possible and as appropriate, “protect and encourage customary use of biological resources in accordance with traditional cultural practices that are compatible with conservation or sustainable use requirements” (CBD, 1992). The adoption of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets in 2010 during the 10th CBD Convention of Parties (COP10) in Nagoya, Japan, reinforced the central role of local communities and indigenous peoples in international strategies of biodiversity management while offering a new recognition to these actors who are often facing opposition from states unwilling to support their livelihoods and ancestral practices.
A recent FAO report (Bradley & Fortuna, 2021) on collective tenure rights for REDD+ implementation and sustainable development reinforces the findings of this paper. This report finds that more effective forest stewardship by local communities with secure tenure is usually attributed to heightened “local participation in forest governance, increased incentives to protect and enhance forest stocks connected to direct livelihood benefits from forest products, and concern with maintaining the resource base for future generations” (27). That same FAO report highlights that the contribution and investment of local communities to maintaining forests is unrecognized and grossly undervalued. Indeed, while local communities tend to spend less labor and cash invested per hectare than conventional conservation programs (e.g., protected areas management), studies have found that they are likely to achieve at least equivalent conservation outcomes (RRI, 2018 in Bradley & Fortuna, 2021). However, despite commitments by the Moroccan government and compelling evidence of the positive and cost-effective conservation role of local communities, there has been only limited improvement in the recognition of their rights and contributions to biodiversity.
As the Moroccan government continues to both reinforce its national network of protected areas and decentralization efforts, planning and deciding on the governance of CPRs is essential. Despite recurring conflicts, the possibility of reconciling the management claims of traditional communities and the Moroccan government remains possible.
ICCAs represent a unique opportunity for Morocco as a framework of decentralization, sustainable development and to mitigate the impact of climate change and biodiversity loss.
Indeed, the official recognition, protection, and support of community conserved areas and territories (ICCAs) by the Moroccan government, as an established form of governance of protected areas, and as recognized by the IUCN and the CBD, is a viable and promising policy route. ICCAs represent a unique opportunity for Morocco as a framework of decentralization, sustainable development and to mitigate the impact of climate change and biodiversity loss. While this paper focuses on the agdal as a successful example of self-organized and self-governed CPR, Morocco is home to many such traditional practices, from the mountains of the High Atlas to the Oasian communities of the South: adgal, l’ghorm, horoum, agadir, khettarat, etc.—all of these ingenious traditional resource management practices are essential elements of the subsistence of many rural communities throughout the country. The recognition and appropriate support of indigenous and community conserved areas, deriving from the free, prior, and informed consent of the local communities, would advance national and international objectives and allow Morocco to shift away from a centrally governed protected area conservation model toward more participative and local-scale configurations. 
*This article was edited by Jack McCaslin (Princeton University), Lea Hunter (Princeton University), and Rebecca Gorin (Princeton University).
About the Author
Leah Mesnildrey (she/her) is a Master in International Development candidate at the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po - PSIA). She focuses on environmental issues and project management. Her recent experience includes working at the Small Grants Programme (GEF-UNDP) in Morocco, the French Embassy in Japan, and at a climate change consultancy in Germany. Leah can be reached at [email protected], [email protected], or LinkedIn.
The author would like to express her sincere gratitude to her colleagues at the GEF Small Grants Programme in Morocco and to the communities that are embarking on the 'APAC' journey for sharing their wisdoms and insights into this topic. Any opinions, omissions or inaccuracies remain the sole responsibility of the author.
1. At the time of writing, the Moroccan government was still in the process of revising Law 22-07 on protected areas to provide it with its first implementing decree, which would launch the country’s new generation of protected areas.
2. Known as jmâa, taqbilt, inaflas, and other local denominations, these assemblies form the local socio-political framework that allows members of a rural community (often a village or group of villages) to meet to discuss issues related to the organization of collective assets such as collective resources and facilities. These institutions are also one of the main sources of local customary law organizing collective goods and relations between group members and can take sanctions against those who do not comply with it (Rachik, 2016).
3. While its expression in practice varies from context to context, the term ICCA is used as a generic term or in inter-cultural fora. In Morocco, the term “APAC” (Aires et Territoires du Patrimoine Communautaire) is used to refer to the nationally- and context-specific expression of such phenomena.
4. Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) is a specific right pertaining to indigenous peoples (recognised by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)) and a good practice to undertake with local communities. It allows them to give, withhold or withdraw (at any stage) consent to a project that may affect them or their territories. FPIC enables them to negotiate the conditions under which the project will be designed, implemented, monitored and evaluated (FAO, 2016).
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