RESPONSIBLE WALKING IN MOROCCO

There is a shared belief amongst the Berber people: the beauty of the High Atlas Mountains should be accessible to all who respect it. What a wonderful, and wonderfully clear, message. It is at once welcoming to travellers and sensitive to the cultural, economic and environmental needs of this beautiful part of the world. If you’ve come to walk in the any part of the Atlas range, doing so responsibly isn’t simply the right way to travel, it’s the way that will reap the greatest rewards. The warm and friendly Berber people are already poised to welcome you and are some of the most kind and generous local people you can meet on a walking holiday. You can build on this, by giving local people – their religion, customs and culture – the respect they deserve. And by giving respect, you’re also earning it, which turns hiking in Morocco from an adventure, to a full on and fabulous cultural experience. In addition, use your tourist clout to affect change, by asking the right questions of holiday suppliers and contributing to great initiatives already thriving on the ground.

PEOPLE & CULTURE

Education provision in Morocco is pretty good, with primary education compulsory and readily available to both boys and girls between the ages of seven and 14. However, it is unusual for girls in the High Atlas Mountains, where so many walking holidays take place, to continue their education beyond primary level. There are several reasons for this. Often, the nearest secondary school is over 20km away, so travelling to it each day is impractical. In addition, many families don’t have the financial resources to support their daughters through secondary education or, if they do, don’t have family near a secondary school who can take care of their daughter while she attends.

Girls from these remote mountain communities deserve the opportunity to continue their education, and the charity Education for All Morocco (EfAM) was established in 2006 to help this happen, with the belief that if you educate a girl, you begin to educate the next generation. Set up by Discover Limited (the British owners of the Kasbah du Toubkal) and other friends in Marrakech, it builds boarding houses near to secondary schools, so girls from remote communities in the High Atlas have safe accommodation and can continue their education through the Moroccan state system. Through fundraising, community work and projects, as of early 2018 the charity has already built three boarding houses that accommodate over 100 girls.
The wider communities of the Atlas Mountains face challenges, too, but in the progressive trailhead village of Imlil, where many walking holidays begin and end, a Village Association – the Association des Bassins d’Imlil – is addressing the problems created by tourist numbers and initiating community projects, too. The association covers Imlil itself and the surrounding valleys, providing an ambulance which serves both the local population and the hundreds of tourists who come here each year, organising rubbish clearance projects and building a hammam (a community bath house), too. The Association has an excellent website, Imlil Valley, with inspiring films and advice on travelling responsibly here.
What you can do:
If you’re staying in Imlil, check that the tourist facilities you use pay the five percent tax towards the Village Association.
Or follow this advice from Mike McHugo, owner of Kasbah du Toubkal:

“If people are looking for one way to make a difference when travelling in the Atlas Mountains, they are already doing so by staying with us, as they automatically pay a 5 percent levy to the village association. The other best way to make a difference is to make a donation to Education for All Morocco which gives opportunities for girls to be educated beyond primary education in rural areas of the High Atlas Mountains.”

Education for All Morocco has various donation options, from sponsoring a girl for a whole year to giving money for school books and stationery.

WILDLIFE & ENVIRONMENT

Watching out for waste

Morocco has a waste disposal problem, and it’s most noticeable in the inhabited Toubkal National Park where rubbish, particularly plastic rubbish that does not decompose, is one of the main culprits. If you’re here on a walking holiday, you’ll also need to stay hydrated, but enjoying clean water while not producing mountains of plastic bottle waste is a challenge all visitors to Morocco should engage with.

What you can do:
Some treks give you the option to purchase bottled water at the start of the trip, with the guiding team carrying it for you, but Morocco doesn’t have established systems for recycling plastic waste, so the far better solution is to bring your own bottle and refill this throughout a trek. Some springs might be clean enough to drink from, and locals certainly do, but travellers are recommended to use water purification systems. At Responsible Travel, we’re big fans of the LifeStraw range of bottles and water bags that make contaminated water safe, plus the company’s Give Back programme means your purchase helps a child in need receive safe water for an entire school year.

Looking out for mules & muleteers

Much of life in Morocco relies on animal power. Mules are used to carry loads throughout the Atlas Mountains, and may be doing the heavy lifting on your trekking holiday. Sometimes, these animals experience less than ideal conditions. The health and treatment of mules is, of course, of huge importance, but remember they are often owned by people who have extremely tough lives. When human lives are difficult, it’s hardly surprising that animals suffer, too. As a traveller on a walking holiday in Morocco, you do have influence though, choosing which practices you support and keeping in mind a few rules.

What you can do:
Remember that 75kg is the maximum weight for a mule to carry, and it should be half that for journeys longer than 20 minutes. Ask your tour company about the mules used on any trekking holiday you’re considering; how much they will be made to carry and how are they cared for.

The Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad (SPANA) is a British charity that works to improve conditions for working animals abroad. It’s been active in the Imlil Valley, working to have the painful Berber bits traditionally used replaced with kinder, stainless steel bits.
The Kasbah du Toubkal, based just outside Imlil, already works closely with SPANA. The mules used on their treks, whether they belong to the Kasbah or are hired in, are all in good health and have SPANA bits, as the traditional Berber bits are damaging to the animals’ mouths. The mules are loaded with safe amounts of baggage, and muleteers are discouraged or banned from riding the mules when they are loaded, so the animals don’t then carry additional weight.
Be prepared to speak out if you see an animal being mistreated. It only takes one sentence to save an animal a life of suffering. Point to the bit, its injuries or an overloaded pack and say, “No. I will not support this.” Word of mouth travels quickly in mountain regions and your actions will have a positive domino effect.
Porter’s rights in places such as the Himalayas have risen up the responsible tourism agenda in recent years, but in Morocco, muleteers often receive less consideration. Ask your holiday operator if the muleteers they employ are paid the living wage. You should insist on this. That might mean adding a few pounds to the overall cost of the holiday, but finding the sweet spot between a decent price that covers the expenses of everyone involved and doing the right thing should be your priority as a responsible traveller.

RESPONSIBLE MOROCCO WALKING TIPS

Travel with respect. Morocco is incredibly welcoming to travellers and a very moderate country when it comes to Islam. Local people understand that visitors aren’t bound by the same religious rules as they are, but any effort to be respectful is appreciated, noted and respected. With that in mind, save hugging and kissing for behind closed doors; even holding hands can be read as distasteful. Dress for the trail not the beach. No matter how hot it is, stripping down to shorts and a vest top is not appropriate up in the mountains. Here, Berber people dress conservatively, and it’s rare to even see men in shorts. By covering to below the elbows and knees, you’re earning respect as well as giving it. Be mindful of your hands and feet. The right hand is the hand to use for all transactions, especially eating. The left hand is seen as unclean, so don’t use it to receive a gift, offer money or in greeting – this is offensive. The feet are also seen as unclean, so don’t ever step over anyone and be careful not to point them at anyone while sitting down. Don’t flash the cash. Not because of the risk of theft, but because this can lead to tension between you and local hosts and people. Haggling over a few dirhams in a shop while showing off a phone that clearly cost thousands can breed jealousy, resentment and frustration. Don’t get snap happy. It’s really disrespectful to take pictures of people without gaining their permission first, especially women. Ask your guide to ask local people for permission, but don’t take a blanket “it’s OK, take photos” as an answer from him. If in doubt, ask yourself. “Ya tsouira?” (yah tuh swee ruh) means “one photo?”. Keep showers short. There may not be hot water available in simple, remote mountain lodges in the mountains, but if there is, it’s often heated by solar power, which can make supply patchy. Be considerate and take showers on the short side. Leave no trace. This is the mantra for any walking holiday, anywhere in the world. Take out what you brought in and leave the natural environment exactly as you found it. Even small items such as chewing gum or a banana skin are detrimental to the environment, or at the very least take a long time to biodegrade.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Andres Fongen] [Berber people: Jacques Bodin] [Berber girls: David Rosen] [Mule: Brandon Atkinson]
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