In Morocco, a million-dollar deal founded on land rights and market opportunity

Men gather to weigh and pay for harvested rosemary in Morocco. The condiment is in demand everywhere, but does not grow everywhere. Photo by: DAI

At first glance, the Mediterranean steppe of eastern Morocco does not look like a place where small cooperatives could generate $1 million a year in revenue.

But that’s exactly what they’re doing. Local cooperatives have negotiated the rights to access local resources and implement a business plan that benefits local and regional authorities, as well as the cooperative members themselves, all on the basis of a unique product that grows wild in the dry, rocky terrain — rosemary.

The fragrant and flavorful condiment is seemingly in demand everywhere, but it does not grow everywhere. And though it grows well in Oriental, Morocco’s easternmost province, rosemary does not just jump off the steppe and into the kitchens of European consumers. Bridging that gap is where the Morocco Economic Competitiveness project came in, with an initiative to help the struggling cooperatives make more money by improving their rosemary and getting it to lucrative markets.

Instances of community-based natural resource management programs that yield real benefits for local people are rarer than we would like to admit. Too often, the resources in question are not commercially viable and the economic incentives are weak. Other times, the contracts negotiated between local people and landowners or government don’t hold up, leaving communities or households with their land and property rights pulled out from under them.

MEC’s work with rosemary producers succeeded because it combined sound market analysis with a carefully constructed agreement on land rights.

How it works

Before MEC became involved, 5 local cooperatives in Jerada and Talsint had formal “agreements” with the Direction Régional Des Eaux et Forêts, the water and forestry directorate that controls the land in Oriental. Terms included sustainable harvesting regimes and quotas, as well as commitments to maintain access roads, firebreaks, and water points for livestock.

These agreements helped the region maintain its land, but did not make much money for the cooperatives. They needed to scale up in order to generate enough revenue from wild-harvested products — mostly aromatic and medical plants — to pay themselves, their hired labor, and the land-use fees charged by local government, about $1 per hectare.

Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, MEC had a broad mandate to reduce poverty, create jobs, and upgrade the workforce. For this initiative, the goal was to help the government authorities and local land users get what they both wanted: increased revenues and sound management of the land.

While local people had long worked this land, DAI’s value chain assessment concluded that dried rosemary showed untapped potential. With MEC support, the cooperatives upgraded their equipment for solar drying, cleaning, and sorting. MEC also helped connect the cooperatives with Moroccan companies that would buy the raw product at a good price and package it for export.

The 5 cooperatives set about hiring local people to help with the work.

In Talsint, a community of about 7,000 in the southwest part of the region, the Ofoq Cooperative was authorised to manage 30,000 hectares. Last year Ofoq renegotiated the agreement to cover only the 15,000 hectares richest in rosemary. This reduced their fees to the local authorities from approximately $30,000 to $15,000 per year.

The cooperative’s responsibilities included planting 5 hectares of new plants each year; hard pruning 5 hectares of old, woody plants; maintaining roads; managing watering holes used by local nomads for their stock; maintaining firebreaks; and adhering to established harvesting guidelines.

Ofoq’s three-year contract enables the cooperative of roughly 25 people to harvest up to 400 tons per year and employ 400 people — mostly very poor farmers — for several months over the harvest period. The land is divided into three 5,000-hectare lots, and each year one of these lots will be harvested on a rotational basis; this allows the rosemary plants to recover and ensures that the maintenance work is implemented evenly across the whole area.

A grant to the Ofoq Cooperative for acquiring state-of-the-art processing equipment was completed in mid-2013, and harvesting and processing operations are in full-swing. Between the start of the season in late May and early July, the cooperative had harvested, processed, and sold about 150 tons of rosemary for $88,000. The revenues are benefiting 200 families of disadvantaged nomads who are harvesting the wild rosemary; each family can expect to earn more than $800 this year from this work. The cooperative is also employing 16 workers to process the rosemary — working two eight-hour shifts per day.

Outside of Jerada, a small city 120 miles (about 193 km) to the north, the Beni Yaala Zakara Cooperative has the same agreement with the Eaux et Forêts and implements the same management regime over an area of 20,000 hectares.

Together, these cooperatives and three others in the region are on track to sell $1 million in rosemary this year. Most of the cooperatives’ raw product is now picked up by wholesalers and trucked to Casablanca and elsewhere for further processing and cleaning, packaging, and export. Four of the five have joined together to form an “economic interest group” that combines marketing efforts and shares market information.

Notably, “Rosemary Oriental” has developed its own brand — top quality, organic — that will soon be registered by the central government. To help the cooperatives manage their new business tempo and branded product, MEC developed a training suite covering institutional governance, project management, and gender integration.

Land agreements crucial

The Oriental Region land rights contract with the local cooperatives accomplishes many of the goals found in traditional community-based natural resource management. The woodland-steppe ecosystems are maintained, even made healthier; the pruning of trees and shrubs encourages growth and reduces the likelihood of serious fires. Although local authorities provide guards to combat the poaching of animals and trees, they lack the resources to manage tens of thousands of hectares of remote woodland. But the cooperatives now can do it, and the local government also benefits from rental income of US$1 per hectare per year.

This land rights deal is succeeding because:

  1. The contracts are clearly explained and understood by both parties.

  2. There are tangible economic benefits, particularly for the local authorities and the hundreds of poor people employed.

  3. The governance system that underpins the land contract is holding up.

MEC’s value chain approach for linking producers to markets also was crucial. But perhaps most importantly, people in poor communities are becoming involved, as they see how land rights and rosemary harvesting have combined to put money in pockets.

For its part, the regional government is happy to have someone managing its remote tracts of ecologically fragile land. MEC is confident that when the land rights contracts expire in 2015, the government and cooperatives will see enough mutual benefit to extend the agreements.

Want to know more? Check out Land Matters, a new campaign to showcase innovative solutions in the areas of food security, economic development, conservation and more.

About the author

  • Andrew Watson

    Andrew Watson is managing director for environment and health at DAI. An 18-year veteran of the organization, he was DAI's chief of party on the USAID Morocco Economic Competitiveness Program and has been involved in similar long-term development initiatives in Madagascar and Malawi.