Rabat - A new development plan proposes to establish a military buffer zone on the Algerian border in Figuig, eastern Morocco. However, local Figuigis have completely rejected the plan which will encroach on their land.
Rabat – A new development plan proposes to establish a military buffer zone on the Algerian border in Figuig, eastern Morocco. However, local Figuigis have completely rejected the plan which will encroach on their land.
The town’s 10,700 inhabitants were surprised that the new development plan for Figuig included a “military buffer zone.” According to the president of Figuig’s municipal council, the Royal Armed Forces (FAR) proposed the project “to allow military maneuvers and chasing [irregular migrants], to face external threats to Morocco, and to monitor any suspicious movement easily.”
The new development plan would minimize the livable area and expand the military area in Figuig.
Figuig, an oasis of date palms at the northwestern edge of the Sahara Desert, is located in the far eastern region of Morocco, surrounded to the north, east, and south by Algeria. The town lies in the middle of a valley surrounded by hills and mountains that represent the continuity of the great Saharan Atlas.
The oasis, which covers an area of approximately 25 square kilometers, consists of seven ksours (castles). The seven are called: Laabidate, Lamaiz, Hammam Foukani, Hammam Tahtani, Loudaghir, Ouled Slimane and Zenaga. The ksar or qsar, called “aghrem” in Tamazight (Berber), is a group of houses surrounded by a fortress and watchtowers.
The majority of Figuig’s population are of Amazigh (Berber) origin and speak Tamazight, but most speak Arabic as well.
Although the closest town to Figuig, Beni Ounif, is just seven kilometers south, it lies across the border with Algeria, which has been closed since 1994. Confined on three sides by the Algerian border and lacking governmental investment, Figuig has suffered from economic stagnation.
The closure of the border isolated Figuig and helped to create intense emigration from Figuig to other Moroccan cities and abroad.
A controversial development plan
In 2015, the urban agency proposed a new development plan for Figuig. Three years later, the urban agency presented the plan to the local public in August this year.
The plan includes a military zone, which would seize 610 hectares in a claw shape surrounding the city to the south, east, and north of Figuig.
Approximately half of the land in the new military project is public property while the other half is private property.
The plan was recently presented to the local public for inquiry for a one month period: August 1-30. During that period, the town’s inhabitants gave their proposals and remarks, revealing vehement opposition.
According to remarks from Figuig’s municipal council, the project “includes areas where investment projects in the agricultural sector already exist and in which local residents and the expatriate community have invested.”
The municipal council held a session September 6 to discuss and approve the proposals by local inhabitants and the council.
Mohammed Hakkou, the president of Figuig’s municipal council, told Morocco World News that the development plan elicited opposition from 860 entities and people, of which 542 opposed the military project. The remaining oppositions concern other aspects of the development plan, such as roads and buildings.
“Ninety-nine percent of the proposals were accepted and adopted by the commune. A report about it will be attached and sent to the urban agency,” he added.
Before adoption, the new plan was developed in phases in which the urban agency, which runs the project, held consultations with concerned ministries and administrations, such as the Hydraulic Basin Agency, the forest and water ministry, and FAR.
Figuig’s first development plan was launched in 1998 after the city was recognized as an “urban commune” instead of a rural area in 1992. Typically, development plans take years to come to fruition. Six years after the launch, in 2004, the plan was approved and implemented by a ministerial decree for a 10-year period.
Military project’s consequences
One reason residents oppose the military buffer zone is that it would prevent them from accessing their land.
The president of Figuig’s municipal council explained that the military zone, if implemented, would be cleared of all obstructions, such as trees, palms, and buildings. Residents would not be able to enter the restricted zone without FAR’s consent.
The areas that will be lost, both due to the military zone and due to inaccessibility, are very important to the town’s inhabitants and constitute part of Figuig’s heritage.
In 2011, the Figuig oasis was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List to be nominated to the World Heritage List.
In the area surrounding the town, locals have cultivated hundreds of thousands of date palms. Dates are the town’s most important agricultural resource.
Figuigi people inside and outside the city have invested a lot of money on private projects to cultivate the arid lands around the central palm grove.The project would affect the population’s economic activities and reduce the already limited areas available for any new construction.
In the new development plan, the area for real estate construction is limited to 8 hectares on the eastern side of Figuig, an area representing only 1.3% of the space the military plans to seize. This would limit the town’s ambitions for real estate investment to build private institutions, administrations, or development projects.
The area of open ground in Figuig in which construction is forbidden, such as cemeteries and land next to valleys, covers three quarters of the city’s area.
Samira Mizbar, a socio-economist researcher from Figuig, told Morocco World News: “Diaspora funds and development projects led by [local and international] associations have enabled the city to thrive and survive.”
However, Mizbar stressed: “The intrusion of the army in the oasis town is going to ‘kill’ investment projects. Clearly, we are being pushed out of the city. Something which [we] will never [allow to] happen.”
What about compensation?
There are also concerns over the application of the Moroccan decree of August 7, 1934, which gives priority to military easements.
Article 8 of the decree stipulates that “The establishment of easements does not give individuals any right to compensation.”
However, the government does compensate for removed buildings and felled or limbed plantations such as trees or palm trees, according to the same article. In addition, the military has the right to remove any plantations which would hinder the establishment of the military zone.
For Figuigis, preserving their land takes central importance, and they decisively refuse to be compensated in exchange for losing their land.
“The most likely scenario would be compensation for these people. However, on the question of private property, the militarization of the city is totally and absolutely rejected,” said Mizbar.
Aziza Jebbari, a local social activist engaged in the civil movement in Figuig, agreed with Mizbar, asserting that locals totally reject compensation because the land is part of their identity and could not be abandoned for money.
“The problem of this military project is that it relates to the ‘collective memory’ of Figuig. For more than a century, Figuig has been regularly losing land with incredible acceleration [in loss] since [Morocco’s] independence,” explained the socio-economic researcher Mizbar.
“One of the direct consequences of this loss of land has been massive emigration abroad in Europe, and to the US since the beginning of the 21st century,” she added.
According to statistics provided by the official website of Figuig, the 1960s marked the beginning of massive emigration from Figuig. Between 1960 and 1971, the total number of people who emigrated was 1,734 people and 3,162 between 1971 and 1982.
Between 1975 and 1982, the number of people leaving the province of Figuig is estimated at 6,015 people, including 1,982 only from the town of Figuig, while 4,430 people left the oasis between 1982 and 1994.
Figuig’s inhabitants aborted fence construction in 2016
Figuigis who want to change the course of the development plan can take hope from a previous instance when they shut down government plans for the border.
In February 2016, the Moroccan government started building a fence for security reasons in Saidia, near Oujda, along the border with Algeria. The authorities stopped building the fence when it reached Figuig province.
According to Mizbar, the authorities in Figuig province told her that Morocco “wanted to protect itself from the dangers of ISIS hidden in southeastern Algeria.”
But local people expressed their discontent over the fence through street protests and social media. “Significant mobilization of the inhabitants of Figuig aborted the project of the separation fence,” said Mizbar.
Authorities from the interior ministry in Bouarfa, 110 kilometers west of Figuig, informed the researcher that a royal letter arrived telling the local authorities to stop building the fence and leave Figuigi people in peace. Mizbar, however, noted that she had never seen the letter.
Do Figuigis need military zone and maneuvers in the region?
Local authorities, including the municipal council, asserted that they are not against security in the region, but they oppose the military project.
While FAR reasons the military zone is necessary for security to counter external dangers, locals disagree.
There is no need for military maneuvers, in Hakkou’s personal point of view, because Figuig’s inhabitants have always contributed themselves to the area’s security.
In the last two years, local people helped in arresting 400 undocumented African migrants who crossed into Morocco from Algeria. Hakkou stressed that “local citizens were the ones who actually captured the illegal immigrants, and they are always protecting their town.”
Researcher Mizbar also supports the position that the proximity of the border does not represent an imminent danger for Morocco. “At the macro-level, the Moroccan army claims that Figuig is a gateway for Algeria,” said Mizbar.
For Mizbar, this is not true in reality. “If we look at the Mediterranean, many passageways have always existed before and after the [Moroccan] borders which often record smuggling operations.”
Mizbar proposed that the Moroccan military should look for intelligence alternatives instead of a buffer zone.
Since the issue concerns national security and border surveillance, Mizbar said: “The state should invest in new intelligence technology instead of preventing people from cultivating their lands, especially because the area is of an oasis nature which could turn to wasteland if it is not farmed.”
Development plan has no economic plan
Figuigis were hoping for economic support from the government. But according to local activists, the plan does not have any economic or environmental aspects.
Aziza Jebbari, a local social activist engaged in the civil movement in Figuig, explained to Morocco World News what she felt was lacking.
“While in the 21st century the world speaks about development, economy, and environment, these aspects were not considered in the development plan. There is an absence of an industrial zone in the development plan and absence of a zone for touristic investment to build hotels and guest houses. At the environment level, when palm trees will be removed, you affect the environment of the town and you kill the oasis’s identity.”
Figuig’s municipal council preferred that the area remain open to agricultural improvements and investment, saying the economic activity “constitutes a shield against any danger, since the region has never presented any danger and has not engaged in any illegal activity.”
‘Figuig is a free land; the army must leave’
Local citizens have repeatedly protested across the city’s streets against the proposed military buffer zone, which would minimize the city’s livable area and expand the military area.
Figuigis first marched in protest on August 25, three days after Eid al-Adha. Five other protest marches followed on the streets and ksours of Figuig.
The aims of the protests were to promote awareness among the population of the dangers of the military project and to send a “disapproval” message against the project to concerned authorities.
Many protestors shouted the slogan: “Figuig is a free land; the army must leave!”
MP Omar Balafrej of the Federation of the Democratic Left (FGD) party sent the minister of the interior a written question about the issue on September 6.
“What are the measures that you intend to take to respond to the inhabitants’ expectations—to expand the vital area of the town and protect its oasis nature—and to do justice to them by retrieving their private lands seized by Algeria?”
Balafrej turned the interior minister’s attention to “the suffering of the inhabitants due to Algeria’s control over the property of Figuig’s inhabitants, including trees and palm trees.”
The town’s inhabitants have been deprived of using the lands they owned that are now on the Algerian side of the border since the 1970s, when they used to use them freely, Balafrej added.
Border issues: ‘The Algerian army advances’
Although Morocco’s border with Algeria is in the mountains above Figuig, the Moroccan military’s outposts are placed far from the border, closer to the 25 square-kilometer town’s population.
Figuig peasants have some agricultural land located between the Moroccan military outposts and the border, an area that local inhabitants consider “an opportunity that Morocco grants to Algeria to enter their lands,” Hakkou said.
He added that, years ago, local people had invested in their lands in Arja, north of Figuig, which Algerians claim as theirs because they allege “they are located before Algeria’s border with Morocco.” As a result, “Algerian soldiers often come to this place with their four-wheel drive vehicles.”
For the socio-economist researcher Mizbar, “accepting the establishment of a buffer zone in the [Figuig] oasis is to accept the loss of land for the benefit of Algerians.” Mizbar implied that if locals could not use their land because of the buffer zone, they might as well lose their land to Algeria.
The situation already exists, according to Mizbar. “While the Moroccan army takes refuge inside the Moroccan lands, the Algerian army advances.”
On August 24, Mizbar met a peasant from Hammam Foukani who was filing a complaint to Figuig’s municipality about an incident. The peasant owns a garden in the zone where the military project is set to be established.
When the peasant went to work on his garden in the morning, he faced a Moroccan military patrol which told him: “You cannot come here again, this zone has become military and you cannot have access to your garden.” The man protested but went back home.
At the end of the day, when he went back to his garden, he found no Moroccan army there. Instead, he saw a group of Algerian soldiers standing in front of him, holding their lamps and laughing out loud. Then one of the soldiers fired his weapon toward the ground.
The peasant objected to the action and said that he would not surrender because he had invested so much money in his land.
Hakkou also noted another problem related to the military plan. “The military zone is 1 kilometer away from the town’s eastern borders with Algeria.” The area between the military zone and the border would possibly be rendered inaccessible.
In this sense, Mizbar emphasized that “soldiers should go and defend the country at the borders.”
Lost lands in the history of Figuig
After Morocco’s defeat to France during the Battle of Isly in 1844, Figuig lost many lands due to the establishment of borders with Algeria. At that time, Morocco supported resistance to the French colonization of Algeria.
“Following the defeat, Morocco was obliged to sign the Treaty of Lalla Maghnia in 1845 which redefined the concept of the border,” wrote history professor Driss Maghraoui in his book “Revisiting the Colonial Past in Morocco.”
Omar Ouramdane, who has researched the history of Figuig, told Morocco World News that the treaty stated in its seventh article that Figuig’s southern border remained undefined since it was an uninhabited area, except for some oases and palaces along the valley of Zousfana and its surroundings, an area south of Figuig that is now part of Algeria.
“The legal arrangement [of the treaty] permitted France on the Algerian side of the border to exercise a ‘right of pursuit’ into Moroccan territory. Further out into the Sahara, beyond Ain Sefra and the Figuig Oasis, the border was not even defined,” Maghraoui wrote in his book.
“The area was considered a ‘no man’s land’ and was subject to much subsequent whittling in favor of the French,” he added.
Local inhabitants at the time were freely moving to their farms along the Zousfana valley during the French colonization. They were also paying taxes on their palms to the French colonials, said Ouramdane.
In October 1963, Morocco and Algeria fought the “Sand War” over the border. The war increased tensions between the neighboring countries for several years, but ultimately ended with no territorial changes.
The war ended in February 1964 by the intervention of international parties, mainly the US, the Arab League, and the Union of African Unity, who arranged a ceasefire.
After the Sand War, the Algerians began to tighten their grip on the oasis and confiscated Moroccan peasants’ land along the Zousfana valley, Ouramdane noted.
When Morocco and Algeria delineated their borders in 1972, most of the land belonging to Figuig locals in the Zousfana valley remained on the Algerian side of the border and became Algeria’s property, he added.
In the years since, Morocco-Algeria tensions have only increased, causing the border between the countries to be closed in 1994.
As a result, the people of Figuig lost a considerable amount of their land and date palms.
According to Ouramdane, Algeria seized more than 135,000 date palms and more than five square kilometers of?? plantation land.
The fate of Figuig and its remaining livable area now lies with the urban agency and government committees.
A central committee will discuss the observations and proposals with Figuig commune, the urbanization department of the Oujda Prefecture, the urban agency, and the regional inspectorate of urbanization. If the project is approved, the minister of housing and urban planning will issue a ministerial decree to implement the project.
According to the president of Figuig municipal council, this phase will not exceed a-one-year period for the project to come into force.
In the meantime, Figuiguis inside and outside Morocco are strongly determined not to give up on their lands as they expressly reject the new development plan and its military buffer zone.