Construction Projects Fuel Forest Fires In Morocco - The Shadow of Concrete Looms over Morocco's Burning Forests

More than a year has passed since the death of sixty-year-old Abdel Salam who was devoured by the flames of the largest forest fire in Moroccan history, while he was battling the flames before they reached the home of his small family.

Abdel Salam’s wife Fatima stood in the middle of a mud house in Douar Hamimoun on the outskirts of Larache province, and described “Black Wednesday.” Her eyes were focused on the top of the mountain as she pointed to parts of the forests that were consumed by the fires in 2022.

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Fatima says, “As the sun rose on 13 July 2022, we heard calls over loudspeakers alerting us to put out fires approaching our village, so Abdel Salam rushed to put out the fires.”
After a whole day, Abdul Salam did not return. Then, the heart-wrenching news emerged, “The charred body of a man was found on the outskirts of the forest.”
The fire that claimed Abdel Salam’s life was the largest in the kingdom’s history. It broke out on 13 July of 2022, in the vicinity of Larache province in the forests of Ahel Sereif and Beni Youssif and consumed 8.868 hectares of forest canopy in just three days.

According to data obtained by Alyaoum24, the scale of losses in the forest canopy caused by the fire has only been recorded once in the total annual fires that have occurred in Morocco’s forests since 1960s, and that was in 1983 when more than 10.000 hectares of forest area caught fire and burned down.
By analysing the data available on forest fires between 2012 and 2022, this investigation examines the rate of spread of forest fires and their distribution in Morocco’s provinces and the areas consumed by those fires.
We will also look into the backgrounds of the outbreak of fires in 2022, which are the biggest of their kind in the history of Morocco. We reveal the entities that benefit from the decline in forest canopies due to fires and question the government’s management of fire prevention programs.

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Unprecedented fires

Analysing data related to the 2022 fires in Morocco reveals shocking figures as the toll was unprecedented in the country’s history.
In the years between 2012 and 2022, Moroccan forests witnessed 4.913 fires that destroyed 51.717 hectares of forest canopy in 61 provinces. A third (34%) of the impacted forests are located in Larache province.
The same data confirm that 67% of the total area of forests that burned between 2012 and 2022 lies in the north of the country and spreads across five provinces followed by the east with around 12% of the total affected areas. The other areas were distributed among the remaining ten provinces in different proportions.

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The rate of fires in forests seemed to accelerate in 2022; out of the total number of forests that burned between 2012 and 2022, 54% are located in the northernmost province of Morocco overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
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So, why are forests in the north more susceptible to fires?

Concrete is invading forest spaces

Over the past two decades, Morocco’s forests witnessed successive fires annually, sometimes in the same province. Judging by the satellite images of these forests, one can almost be certain that after years of the continuous encroachment of concrete, a number of forests will be erased off the map of Morocco to be replaced by touristic or residential projects, especially in the northern parts of the country that overlook the Mediterranean Sea, which attract foreign investment.

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The Dar Fawal Forest lies in the coastal city of Ksar Es Seghir, overlooking Gibraltar. Between 2012 and 2022, 177 hectares of its total of 1.248 hectares were consumed by 33 fires.
Worthy of note is the fact that this same forest has been hit by fires annually, at the rate of two to five fires per year. Satellite images show the encroachment of concrete on the outskirts of the forest near the road heading towards Tangier, where large parts of the forest disappeared between 2003 and 2023.
The same scene is repeated in the Feddane Chappo Forest in Tangier province with an area of 432 hectares. From 2012 until the end of 2022, the total burned area amounted to around 78 hectares in the aftermath of sixteen fires that occurred there. Satellite images show that these forests cannot escape the encroachment of concrete onto the parts closest to the Mediterranean Sea, no more than 800 metres away.
The Rmeilat Forest to the south of the city of Tangier was not spared from investment projects. In this instance, tourist investment projects, such as sports clubs and luxurious restaurants were built on the remains of the forest. Satellite images show that these projects encroached on forest lands at various stages in the past two decades.
The Cape Spartel Forest, which lies at the southern entrance to Gibraltar witnessed thirteen fires between 2012 and 2022, the largest of which was in 2017 whereby 242 hectares of the forest burned. Satellite images show some buildings and recreational facilities built on parts of that part of the forest overlooking the sea.
Mohammed Bin Abbou, a specialist in environmental engineering and climate change points out that “whereas climate change and rising temperatures are the usual culprits,” in this case, “All investigations confirm that the human factor was the main cause of these fires.”
Bin Abbou added, “Today, forests in Morocco are suffering from building projects, and farmers encroachment on forest areas close to their arable lands.” He highlighted that the absence of regulations makes it easy for real estate lobbies and businessmen to construct investment projects.

A path to invasion

An official source at the National Agency for Water and Forests who preferred to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the media, says that the invasion of forest spaces after burning them has a clear path nowadays. It starts with burning the forest “by an unknown party” and ends with a judicial ruling in favour of whoever claims ownership of the forest.
This official has revealed details of what he describes as “legalized seizure of land” saying that “Fires break out in the forest, and a report of the incident is then filed against an unknown person. Months later, the agency announces the start of reforestation of the lands devoured by the fire. Then, people emerge and object to this process and claim that the forest land is their property.”
The agency official adds, “The reforestation process, and a judicial case is opened in the competent court after hearings that extend for two or more years. Those who claim ownership of forest lands supply witnesses who confirm to the judge that the land is owned by the persons claiming it belonged to them.”
After a process of going back and forward on the issue, a judicial ruling is issued to remove the state’s authority over the burned forest, and concrete constructions start to creep onto the area after a while. The agency official wonders, “Where was this person who is claiming ownership of the burned forest before it burned down?”
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The primary official in charge of managing forest fires in Morocco kept evading this question. Meanwhile, the head of the National Centre for Climate Risk Management at the National Agency for Water and Forests Fouad Al-Assali said he was extremely busy and apologized for not being able to speak to the investigator.

An official confession

The reporter asked the head of the National Agency for Water and Forests Abdel-Rahim Houmi about the encroachment of investment projects on forest lands after they are burned. In his response, Houmi said, “In some cases, the land is appropriated. After judicial follow-up, we search for a solution after the completion of an investment project, such as a hotel or residential buildings on the property.”
Houmi added, “When the investment is important and benefits the country, we look for a solution, such as a real estate barter, for example, whereby the person who seized the forest property gives us another land that we convert into a forest.”
The head of the National Agency for Water and Forests underlined the fact that the agency “surveys and registers protect forest property.” He said, “Today, the survey of more than 80% of forest lands has been approved, and no one can seize them; otherwise, we would follow up on it. Some forests have not been surveyed and registered, or they are in the process of being surveyed; therefore, it is easy to determine the kinds of issues that may arise, including seizing them after fires break out in them.”
Forest surveys entail setting boundaries and maps to determine the forest area and borders so that these fall under the control of the administration in charge of managing the property to prevent unlawful seizure of the forest.

Surveying and registering forests

Real estate or investment projects have been constructed in most cases where forests encroachment takes place. Data obtained by the investigator show that the competent Moroccan authorities did not survey and register these lands. If the procedures to register forests with the real estate authorities in the province were to be followed, it would have made violations and seizure attempts “extremely difficult”.
The Supreme Accounts Council is the constitutional institution that monitors the management of public funds. It states that surveying and registering forests is important in fighting and reducing fires. This raises many questions about the continued delay in implementing this process.
The 2016 council report on “Assessment of Natural Disaster Management” states that the rate of surveyed forests reached around 81% of Morocco’s total forest lands while the head of the National Agency for Water and Forests informed the investigator that the rate of surveys exceeds 80% in 2023. This means that the numbers did not dip between 2016 and 2023.
The investigation revealed that concrete encroached on vital parts of the Dar Fawal and Feddane Chappo forests, occurred after the fires in the past eleven years. The authorities in charge did not speed up the process of surveying and registering the forests until December 2022, due to two decrees issued by Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch which were published in the Official Gazette.
The National Agency for Water and Forests says that the majority of forest fires (99%) were caused by humans, and in nearly most of the cases (99%), their perpetrators were unknown.
The Supreme Accounts Council pointed to the fact that “The failure to pinpoint the true motives behind the fires and the failure to identify the perpetrators contributed to the increase in the number of fires. The fact that 95% of the fires are of unknown origins does not help in reducing their numbers.”

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An alarming deterioration

Our analysis of data on forest areas announced by the Planning Commission in Morocco reveals that the forest canopy in Morocco has been deteriorating at an alarming rate.
In a meeting with members of a parliamentary committee in July 2022, the director of the National Agency for Water and Forests stated that the deterioration of forest canopies is estimated at 17.000 hectares annually. However, data reveal that Morocco lost about 1 million and 406.000 hectares of its forests between 2016 and 2022, representing 16% of the kingdom’s forested areas in 2016, which translates into more than 200.000 forest canopies annually.
The area of lost forests between 2016 and 2022, is distributed over eight provinces whereby the largest is in the east. Figures from the High Commission for Planning provide insight onto the development of (new) forest area in Morocco between 2016 and 2022. During that period, a new forest canopy appeared in the southern provinces of the kingdom, most notably in the Laâyoune-Sakia El-Hamra, extending over more than 478.000 hectares.
Afforestation of the desert and semi-desert provinces of Morocco has reduced the total areas of forests lost between 2016 and 2022 to only about 274.000 hectares.
In the north, however, which has more than two-thirds of forest fires in Morocco, for example, concrete has been encroaching towards the forest canopy where this region lost more than 95.000 hectares of forests between 2016 and 2022.
The forest areas in the northern provinces continued to decline year after year, from around 486.000 hectares in 2016, to 413.000 hectares in 2019, and then to around 391.000 hectares in 2022. This raises concerns about the possibility of the disappearance of forest canopies over the years, given the low rate of reforestation of areas affected by fires.

The law of 1917

Mohammed Bin Abbou is specialized in environmental engineering and climate change. He asserts that “not surveying and registering forests makes creeping onto them easy for real estate lobbies or for anyone who wants to build an investment project.”
Bin Abbou pointed out that the Law on Forest Preservation and Exploitation and the Law on Surveying and registering State Property are two of the oldest national agricultural and environmental laws as these were approved more than 100 years ago, and they are still in effect today.
The Moroccan expert connects the antiquated laws in the kingdom, to the failure in speeding up the process of surveying and registering the forest in order to protect these from invasion for various reasons.
Morocco constantly reviews its legislation and laws, sometimes from one legislative term to another; however, the legal requirements on combating forest fires date back to 1917, and have remained unchanged after more than a century.
The report issued by the Economic, Social and Environmental Council in May 2022, views the laws pertaining to combating forest fires as no longer valid, as the stated penalties for those involved in burning forests are not compatible with current circumstances.
The council reported that a plan to prevent and combat forest fires in Morocco was prepared in 2001. A budget amounting to 4.094 bn Dirhams (more than $400 million), including 2.023 bn Dirhams, was set for investment between 2001 and 2010 without the approval of any financing mechanism.

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What about financial compensation?

Since Abdel Salam’s death in the largest forest fire in the history of Morocco, his wife Fatima is still hoping to receive financial compensation that might help her support her family.
Fatima says, “Every now and then I ask local authority officials about the compensation for the loss of my husband in the fire. They tell me there is nothing new. They said that the file is in the court, but I have not been summoned to any hearings yet.”
In July 2022, and under royal instructions, the government announced the allocation of 290 million Dirhams ($ 30 million) to implement a set of precautionary measures to reduce the impact of the forest fires and to support the impacted residents. The government did not classify the 2022 fires in Morocco's forests as a natural disaster, which would have entitled Fatima and others affected by the fires to compensation as they would have been considered catastrophic events.
Despite this, it is hoped that the depletion of the kingdom’s forest canopies would be halted. As of July 2022, the current state of Morocco's forests reveals that these cover an area that extends over 9 million hectares, of which tens of thousands of hectares of forest canopy are lost annually. In the meantime, the National Agency for Water and Forests reports that the national average of reforestation rates do not exceed 48%.
by Yassir Al-Makhtoum – Morocco, ARIJ Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism.
Original Article:

  • Nelly Aurora

    17 w

    This is truly disheartening; we definitely require more solutions for this.

    • George Kariuki

      18 w

      Outdated laws and lack of enforcement make it difficult to hold anyone accountable.

      • Jane Wangui

        18 w

        @george_kariuki policy makers should be vigilant.W3 must all be responsible.

      • Rotich Kim

        18 w

        The research is good we need policies makes to make more effort and get the long lasting solutions

        • Sarah Chabane

          18 w

          Such an insightful investigation! We need policy makers who care about the environment and people

          • Princess

            18 w

            This is a serious problem.

            • Rotich Kim

              18 w

              This is very discouraging indeed we need more solution for this

              • Gorffly mokua

                18 w

                This is very disturbing news! We need a more responsible approach to development that recognizes the value of our natural habitats & works towards building a more sustainable future.

                • Rotich Kim

                  18 w

                  This is unfortunately we need more emergency response team as this disaster affect our environment

                  • Munene Mugambi

                    18 w

                    This is a sad scene, forest fires flared by human activities should not be a thing we have to deal with in this climate crisis.

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