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Moroccan Villagers Make Their Desert Bloom


Moroccan community farm could be a model for other drought-prone regions

International aid paid for a water pump and aid workers trained the farmers in fertilizing and irrigation

The edge of the Sahara desert seems an unlikely spot for an organic farm, but that didn't stop a group of poor villagers in the village of Hart Chaou, 300 kilometers southeast of Marrakesh, from planting one. The Moroccan community farm could be a model for other drought-prone regions.

This fertile valley, hundreds of kilometers east of Marrakesh, looked very different three years ago. Instead of this organic farm, the land here had been claimed by the desert. The farmers that work it today lived precariously.

"Before, we were oppressed by periods of drought," farmer Mohamed Ait Lamine said. "Even if you wanted to work the land-- if you wanted to do things--there was no water. People lived on the edge of death."

During the frequent droughts, Mohamed Ait Lamine and others left their families to look for work on construction sites in cities far away.

"Then, there was barely enough food, just barely enough. It wasn't like now," farmer Brahim Baiach said.

Two years ago, international donors put up money to drill a well. The Moroccan government donated land. And 30 of Hart Chaou's poorest families brought a cornucopia out of the ground.

"Last year, I sold 400 to 500 kilos of green peas," Lamine said. We thank God."

"Tomatoes, watermelon, potatoes, carrots, turnips, peppers -- we've got all vegetables here," Baiach said.

The land had been divided into plots and distributed to residents who had no arable soil of their own.

Foreign aid paid for the pump that brings up the water and fills this reservoir. The farmers themselves pay to keep it running. Their new irrigation method has cut water usage by half.

"In the past, we worked in a haphazard way, without any techniques. We worked as our fathers did," Lamine said.

Now, the farmers plant their crops closer together and run water through narrow trenches. The technique was taught by aid workers who also showed the farmers how to fertilize with compost or manure.

"What we're doing now is better. Now we have real techniques," farmer Saddik Ait Abdelouahed said.

The methods they learned here are already being used in other regions, but it's not simple.

Lahcen Khallouki is President of Hart Chaou's Development Association. "It can be replicated, but the first thing is to have the space," he said. "Without land, one cannot do anything. Also, it's necessary to have a fund for the management of the land."

And farmers who can make the desert bloom.