The state-led decline of subsistance farming in Morocco

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A farmer tilling a field. Photo: Ali Aznague
The destruction of local and subsistence agriculture by an export-led model in Morocco

Authors: ATTAC Maroc

Editor: Fayrouz Yousfi

This article is the English version from the Réseau ritimo special dossier on Food Sovereignty in North Africa. You can read the full dossier (in French) here:

In Morocco, “rural development” has been completely omitted from agricultural strategies. In this sense, it was not until the Structural Adjustment Programs’ (SAPs) debt crisis that the International Financial Institutions emphasised, although late, the importance of rural development for ‘growth improvement’. Hence, in a similar logic, from the 1990s onwards, agricultural strategies in Morocco put ‘rural development’ through a market approach at its core. However, most of the agricultural strategies developed by the government never made it out into the light. Agricultural development focused on growth improvement and securing capital accumulation for the private sector and the state’s elites. Indeed, the agricultural sector in Morocco was marked by state engagement in the large export-oriented sector and disengagement from the traditional sector.

The large export-oriented sector, made up of large-scale farms of over 50 ha, represent less than 5% of total farms but control over one-third of total agricultural land in Morocco. The traditional sector represents small and micro farmers that use family labour for production and are reliant on subsistence farming. Small farmers represent 56.7% of total farmers, own between 5-50 ha in rain-fed land. Micro-farmers own less than 3 ha in rain-fed, non-irrigated areas and represent 41% of the total rural population.

1. A state-led promotion for capitalists’ farmers

In Morocco, the subsidisation of the agricultural sector began along with the agricultural investments law issued in 1969. These post-independence incitements were part of the state's national strategy, which paved the way for the emergence of an agricultural capitalist class integrated into the global market. The state's support for the agricultural sector included:

  • subsidies for agricultural equipment
  • strategies to protect and improve the production capacity of lands
  • crops and livestock
  • promotion of research and development in the agricultural sector
  • agricultural education
  • and state regulation of the market, land tenure and land titling programs. 

With the SAPs, the Moroccan state's support for the private capitalist agricultural class drastically increased. Through the Agricultural Development Fund – which was established in 1986 and has entrusted its management to the Crédit Agricole, a Moroccan banking group with public capital – the state's agricultural subsidies were all directed towards large agricultural producers and exporters.  

The state's support for the large export-oriented agricultural sector deepened with the Plan Maroc Vert (Green Morocco Plan) – Morocco's latest agricultural strategy in 2008 that sought to devote state subsidies essentially to support agribusiness at the expense of small and medium farmers. It implemented a financial aid system to encourage investments, which provide irrigation and agricultural equipment subventions such as machinery, structures, and greenhouses and many others. Hence, the rationale of the agricultural subsidy system is based on encouraging and promoting a commercial, industrial and export farming model, rather than on the social and economic conditions of the small farmers.

The small peasants we interviewed all assured us that the state's subvention for the agricultural system does not benefit them. According to them, these subsidies do not go along with their traditional farming habits. Rather, the state's financial aid for small farmers is doomed to fail as they cannot compete against the commercial, industrial and export model of agriculture. The subsidies finance investments in well drilling, construction of customised water storage tanks, installing drip and drill irrigation systems, procurement of farm machinery, construction of greenhouses, acquisition of seeds and certified tree plantations – all of which are financially costly projects that cannot be sustained by small peasants. Aside from the widespread corruption in the Moroccan administration, the complex structure of subsidies is not easily accessible to small farmers, and they require time-consuming procedures and a lot of paperwork, which make them difficult to obtain.

The financial aid system in the agricultural sector is turning in to a way for large capitalists and agricultural companies to plunder public money. For example, to equip agricultural land with the drip irrigation system, the farm owners must contract a company that is specialised in drip irrigation, on the condition that the company will be responsible for all stages of the project. The farmers only have to pay for the provided services after they benefit from their share of the state subsidy. However, the companies impose their prices at will, and due to the absence of quality control on these types of equipment, the unfamiliarity of farmers with the equipment and the widespread corruption in the administrations, often the small peasants are forced to abandon the reimbursement procedure. Here, these companies become the real beneficiaries of the support devoted to agricultural equipment. Moreover, other companies directly benefit from financial aid, such as companies that export agricultural products, soil and water analysis laboratories, and so on. We find that these companies contract agents to follow the process of their reimbursement procedure with the one-stop-shop of the regional directorates of agriculture and regional offices and the state's agricultural bank. The system of agricultural subsidies is thus a means of rapid profit for the benefit of large agricultural producers and commercial enterprises at the expense of small farmers. 

2. Supporting export products and marginalising subsistence agriculture

During the colonial period, France saw in the Moroccan agricultural sector a way to supply its domestic market with cereal crops. The colonial administration used Moroccan cereal production to complete its cereal production.

Hence, as a way to preserve the interests of its French producers, France only complemented, when needed, its domestic market with Moroccan cereal crops. For a long time, France's domestic market needed an important supply of cereal crops. On the eve of the Second World War, it was the textile and oil raw materials that dominated the exports of colonial Morocco. By the early 1950s, Morocco's agricultural sector started to concentrate on citrus and vegetable production. After Morocco's independence in 1956, Morocco continued the path of the colonial agricultural policy through what was called a "dam policy" that encouraged export crops with huge public investment, especially in irrigated areas, and marginalised the livelihood of rain-fed agriculture. However, the results were insufficient at the level of agricultural production.

As for grain crops, Morocco witnessed a limited growth rate and very weak production. This was due to the shift towards soft wheat, which took over grain-cultivated areas. The area allocated for wheat increased from 500,000 ha in 1980 to roughly 2 million ha in 2002, mainly located in irrigated fields. The state's support for soft wheat production was further reinforced with the state's subsidy for wheat consumption and tractors, at the expense of the hard wheat produced by small peasants mainly in rain-fed agriculture regions, whose area has shrunk about a third. Moreover, pulse crops production, which is essentially produced by small peasants, also drastically decreased in terms of quantity production and cultivated area. 

If on one hand the industrial and oil crops increased in terms of area after the introduction of sunflowers – whose area moved from about 34,700 ha to 160,000 ha between 1985 and 1990 – on the other hand, the level of production declined, due to the fall in prices resulting from price liberalisation.

Irrigated crops such as fodder and fruit trees remain the only crop for which increased area of cultivation has come with increased production levels, while vegetables (and of course those prepared mainly for export) witnessed significant production growth.

Thus, small peasants' marginalisation deepened throughout the years as they could not follow the state's agricultural strategies, bear the cost of farming nor compete with highly subsidised large agricultural producers. Moreover, since small peasants depend entirely on rain-fed agriculture, this marginalisation was further reinforced throughout the drought period from 1991 to 2002. The state abandoned the poor peasants in favour of large capitalists’ farmers, through the liberal opening measures which started with the SAPs (1985) and heightened with Morocco's accession to the World Trade Organization (1995).

Camels being led through an arid landscape.
Photo: Ali Aznague

3. Small peasants’ voices from southern Morocco

A 42-year-old butcher from the rural commune of Lamhadi, in the Souss-Massa region

The 42-year-old butcher used to be a small peasant: he used to own a citrus farm of approximately 1.5 ha. He told us that in his rural areas, many small peasants who used to grow a variety of crops such as vegetables and citrus were forced to quit farming in the 1990s. In the Souss Massa region, subsistence farming is rapidly disappearing due to major social, political and economic changes. Morocco’s agricultural model is based on the promotion of the production of high value-added crops that are water and labour intensive. In the rural area of Lamhadi, the volume of groundwater in storage is decreasing: small peasants have to drill water wells 260 m in depth.

This overexploitation of water marginalised small peasants who cannot bear the cost of private drilling. Furthermore, the scarcity of water pushed small farmers to lease their lands to large scale farmers developing agribusiness at the expense of small farmers. However, the scarcity of water in Lamhadi also impacted large scale farmers. Many large citrus farms stopped after the trees died due to the shrinkage of groundwater. This butcher has reported that five large citrus farms disappeared. Some large farmers irrigate their farms from the dam's water for 35 cents per ton, which is considered relatively high.

He added that among the transformations that have occurred in the rural area of Lamhadi is urban expansion on agricultural land, particularly on small peasants’ citrus farms. Moreover, he said that among the causes of the slow disappearance of subsistence farming in the area is the development of two large cooperatives that concentrate large farms that have their own processing and packaging stations.

Ahmed, a truck driver from the Houara region

Back in the 1980s, small peasants used well water to irrigate their crops which is common in many arid regions such as this. At that time, water wells were only 90 m deep; today, you may not find water even if you go 220 m or deeper. Small peasants cultivated lemon trees and melon.

Due to a severe lowering of the groundwater table, the region of Houara is witnessing a slow disappearance of small scale and family farming. According to Ahmed, the number of smallholder farmers has declined by 70% in the past few decades. Many small peasants saw their citrus trees dry up and gradually die. Ahmed added that because the water became very scarce, these agricultural lands were turned to a wasteland.

The inability to farm the land has pushed many residents who were farmworkers to migrate. As for the farmers forced to abandon citrus production, some of them altered their cultivation methods towards livestock farming, but this severely impacted their lives. Ahmed asserted that this has resulted in the economic deprivation and marginalisation of their families. Moreover, these small peasants had to adopt alternative income-generating activities, such as driving in the formal or informal transport sector. Unfortunately, even this ‘profession’ declined with the migration of farmers to neighbouring villages. Ahmed insisted that in his region, small peasants have all disappeared. Today, many of them have become agricultural workers, working on large scale citrus farms.

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