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  • Writer's pictureArielle Kouyoumdjian

An Unsung Climate Hero in The High Atlas Mountains


There are two types of climate heroes: those that speak to the people and those that speak for the earth. Those that speak to the people are household names, but unfortunately, sometimes those who speak for the planet can feel as if they are shouting into the wind. The majority of heroes on the front-lines of the fight against climate change go unheard. Often, the voices of the communities that are most threatened by climate change are silenced by discrimination or isolation. Today, we hear from someone who would probably not call himself a climate hero, but who is nevertheless making an indelible impression on the earth through persistent and humble leadership. He is literally saving the planet one step at a time.

Hussain of the Ouirgane ecolodge is a Berber hiking guide in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. He is an outspoken environmentalist in his village. He offers a first-hand perspective on climate change’s devastating and disproportionate impact on marginalized communities. The land that he and his forbearers have navigated, depended on, and protected for millennia is shifting and deteriorating before his eyes. I spent four days exploring the Atlas Mountains with Hussain as my guide. As he patiently answered my questions, his breadth of knowledge and his indefatigable sense of hope and determination stuck out to me. Though his voice is not amplified by the mainstream climate movement, Hussain makes an indelible impression on those passing through this landscape that they carry with them to the far corners of the earth.

Here is a lightly edited transcript of my conversation with Hussain.

Note: Since this conversation, which occurred in March 2023, one of the most devastating earthquakes ever recorded struck the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Hussain’s village, Imlil, was at the epicenter of the quake. We reached out to Hussain multiple times in the aftermath of the earthquake, hoping for news that he, his wife, and his two young children are alright. We have yet to hear back.

I hosted a fundraiser at my school to provide aid for Moroccan communities impacted. We will continue trying to contact Hussain. He and his community are in our thoughts and prayers. My conversation with Hussain has taken on a heavy meaning I never anticipated. I’m glad I immortalized his story.


I'm wondering if you can tell me a little bit about how you've seen climate change affect Morocco.

The climate change really affects not just Morocco, but all over the world. It does especially affect Morocco, because Morocco is in Africa. And Africa, it's the driest continent in all the world. And we can see the effect of the climate change, even now, in the High Atlas Mountains. Like if you were here 10, 15 years ago, you wouldn't see these solar panels as you can see now. Because at that time, there was enough water, and people didn’t have to dig to get water, to make wells and to get water. But now, every year, we get more wells around the High Atlas Mountains, and in the flat lands also, which is a big, big problem.

The Moroccan government organized a climate change conference in 2016, which was called Marrakech COP. The Moroccan government already has made some decisions to reduce pollution by limiting the plastics. 10 years ago, you can see plastic bags everywhere, all over the country. We used plastic bags everywhere. If we just want to buy like five breads, we used plastic bags to get everything from home. We have these market days, thousands of people coming from different villages to buy things, and you could find plastic bags everywhere. There were no environment friendly bags to use. We just got plastic bags from the sellers and then people threw them everywhere.

But now, as I live in the Atlas Mountains, I can see the difference between before that decision and now. Plastic is really reduced, but we still need quite long to stop or to limit the pollution.

What other kinds of incentives has the government put out in order to encourage regular citizens to kind of invest in renewable energies?

The government has an initiative to increase plants. We call it Green Morocco, which is in Arabic, Al Maghrib Al Akhdar. We plant the trees, especially pine trees, cactus, juniper, which grow naturally. If you see in front of us, that forest, 20 years ago, was empty like the other one there. Or just above that village. These trees have been planted there for like 17 years now. And they do plant thousands and thousands of trees all around the country. It's to reduce the pollution and at the same time to stop the landslides as we live in the mountains.


It sounds like Morocco kind of uses these ancient traditional methods to combat climate change. On one of our treks, you mentioned the sustainable irrigation system that was thousands of years old.

Exactly. It's a very old system and we still use it. We still keep it and it will be here for the next and the next generations. I would really like that system to stay. We’ve got modern materials that we can use to irrigate our fields, these small terraces. But people prefer to keep the old irrigation system. It's from our culture and our traditions. We get it from our parents. And our parents get it from their parents. And it will stay forever. If you walk around these villages, you can see many new constructions of these old irrigation systems. That means it's a plan for the next and the next generations to keep and to use.


Hopefully, as long as the earth is still around…

Can you tell me about how climate change is affecting your community's access to food and water?

Yes. We can see a big change in that. I have a family, and I used to go to these market days. The prices are increasing double and triple in some things. That's because of the dryness. As I told you yesterday about the olive oil: last year and this year, it's a big difference. Olives are double the price. It's because of the dryness. Same with vegetables. We used to get vegetables with very reasonable prices. But this year especially, there has been dryness. We hope, we hope that the decisions taken by the governments all over the world will change and will make things get better.

We really hope so because it really affects us and we believe that it affects all over all over the world.


Are there any groups of people here who can't afford enough food?

Yes. We have charities helping locals. Moroccan charities or even charities from other countries. Not just to offer the food, but to let the girls keep studying. One of these charities is called Education For All. They offer houses for the girls near the secondary school. Just to let them keep studying. Which was not my generation. The girls, they didn't study because they were not able to leave home and stay somewhere for a whole week. The secondary schools are always far from the countryside.

The secondary school in our area is 17 to 20 kilometers from the village. And behind that ridge, there is another valley with many villages. They all face the same problem. The distances to the secondary schools are even longer in other villages. So in my time, the girls were not able to study because the families were afraid of their daughters to go and stay away from them.

But because of these charities, we got many girls studying and many girls now having jobs, which really improves the economic situation of themselves and their families.


Yes, and it gives them some autonomy too.

Yes, exactly.

What do you think are the greatest needs of children here?

The same as children everywhere. Well-educated and healthy. We are lucky that a secondary school will be built in just between these two villages. We have a very basic hospital just down the hill. We will pass through it tomorrow when we come down to finish our trek in Imlil. They really extended that hospital. It was very small and basic, just for the first aid. But now it will be for the first aid and for the women who want to give a birth, which is, helps actually. We see it and we believe it's a big change for us in this area.


That’s a wonderful improvement.

Do you know if people here in general know what climate change is? Do they learn about it in school and do adults know that it's a scientific phenomenon?

Sometimes they learn about it in school. But our life sometimes teaches us more than the school. Our parents told us, “You know, we used to get this level of snow in winter. Just to get to the other side of that village, we needed at least three days to get through the high snow.” But now it's getting less. We used to ski in front of my house. But it's been quite a long time since we’ve done that, because we don't get that much snow.

Three weeks ago, we got some snow, but we usually get that amount in December and January when the temperature is lower and it stays for longer. If you had seen Imlil then…it was full of snow exactly on the 17th of January. Yeah. In less than a month, it all melted. It’s hotter than it used to be. Even now, in March.


So everyone can see the effects of climate change.

Yes. But kids are not learning about it enough in school. Morocco is a developing country. It's not a developed country. So we still need a quite long time to let everyone know how important the environment is, and how important it is to work hard to protect the environment that's surrounding us. It will take quite a long time.

It has to be a first priority. Yes.

As I am from this area. I love it. I was born here and grew up here and I want to stay here forever because it's, it’s my favorite place. But I really want to see big changes from locals and from people who come to visit us from different cities in Morocco. We don’t have as much of a problem with foreigners as we do locals, when it comes to keeping the environment clean.Foreigners really respect our traditions and our culture and they really respect the environment. I want the locals to take this initiative learn from the others who come to visit our country from a long distance.

They come and they support us and they respect our environment. I want locals to learn this. I tried to teach them. I am a member of an environmental association in my village. I always try. We collect students from the primary school, and we go from time to time to clean up garbage. But I really want to see more.

I want to see more green space and more clean areas here in Toubkal National Park. We have one of the biggest national parks and one of the biggest tourist attractions in, in whole Africa and all over the world. So I really want to see a big change, big revolution in the environment.



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