Mapping extractivism across conventional extraction and renewables becomes more concrete for rural residents when the focus shifts to the laws and bureaucratic procedures used to implement a particular project in their region. To be sure, the histories of the projets structurants (mega-projects) in the southeast of Morocco diverge significantly: from the cobalt mine of Bouazzer, inaugurated in 1928 before the French had even secured military control over the entire region, to the future-oriented, globalized discourse of renewal that frames the solar plan. However, mining and renewable energy are concentrated in the same regions and deploy the same laws and bureaucratic procedures for securing the resources necessary for extraction. Beyond tangible resources such as land, metals or minerals, these resources include public investment in infrastructure – the roads necessary to transport materials and the mined resource, for example –and the use of state power to control popular dissent. The history of mining from the colonial period to the present reveals a striking continuity in the way wealth is extracted from the poorest areas of the country with minimal reinvestment in social and economic infrastructure.
Histories of modern Morocco critique the colonial bifurcation of the country into a ‘useful’ (utile) centre that received resources and ‘development’ and a ‘useless’ (inutile) periphery that was neglected. These terms represent a particularly explicit description of the extractive capitalism common to all colonial contexts. However, such a neat binary does not fully describe how the colonial and independent states did invest in the rural margins of Morocco. Infrastructure and other economic investment in the rural periphery extracted resources and labour for the benefit of populations elsewhere. The southeast of Morocco was – and is – most definitely ‘utile’: the question is, useful for what and for whom? Understanding how histories of extraction intersect with land governance, agricultural policy, and state power in the southeast shows how similar strategies are used to secure state or corporate access to all sorts of resources.
Identifying continuities in the rules and procedures governing both mining and renewable energy projects is important because it makes it possible to document the full range of mechanisms used for expropriation. Some of these mechanisms are buried in the complicated language of regulations and administrative procedure, out of sight of local residents. At the same time, documenting bureaucratic frameworks can help to identify openings for making claims that expand the political tools at the disposal of residents living with extraction. The contemporary legal and bureaucratic framework for mining in Morocco has been influenced by the global expansion in metals and mineral mining, especially efforts to apply new technologies to make older operations viable again, and the rush to secure strategic sources for the rare earth metals so essential for the technology sector and renewable energy production.15 These novel ways of valuing extraction are evident in Morocco’s new Mining Code of 2015. The code elaborates a detailed legal framework to encourage more investment in extracting metals and minerals – beyond the dominant phosphate sector – on the premise that a burdensome regulatory environment has suppressed full development of extractives.16 Conventional extraction is therefore not a ‘legacy’ sector, an outdated antecedent to renewable energy that will fade away as part of the transition away from fossil fuels: on the contrary, extraction becomes even more important to support the increased need for the metals and minerals that are key to renewable energy production. In addition, the huge complexes associated with the solar plan require standard building materials and carbon-intensive inputs, such as expanded paved road systems and high-voltage transmission infrastructure.
Efforts to grow the mining sector and renewable energy in Morocco parallel the country’s agricultural development strategy over the past decade (the Plan Maroc Vert). The guiding philosophy of that plan was to map each agro-ecological zone in the country to find new ways to promote export agriculture for the benefit of commercial interests over small farmers.17 In the southeast, the Plan Maroc Vert has spurred the growth of large date, apple, and watermelon agribusiness farms that, along with mines and renewable energy installations, compete for water and land. This competition squeezes residents with a limited capacity to defend their land rights or secure their own livelihoods. Researchers documenting the legal and bureaucratic procedures at the root of extractivist policies therefore need to look beyond the recent flurry of legislation and investment facilities in emergent sectors like solar energy or rare earth metals. They also need to account for agricultural policies, new and old, as well as the archaic and ambiguous legal frameworks governing land and water. Here, the broad discretion given to state authorities by colonial policies designed to facilitate expropriation have contemporary benefits for powerful actors. State authorities use that discretion to quickly and quietly secure land and other resources.18
Thus, despite the distinctive nature of each form of extraction, the shared bureaucratic frameworks governing land, water, and natural resource extraction draw all these resources into the same political dynamics. But just as legal frameworks for land and water have been used to dispossess local residents, activists also wonder if there are any entry points citizens can use to contest how extraction projects are implemented on the ground. This requires sustained organizing, and a democratization of knowledge about how to use legal codes for oppositional politics. State or corporate appropriations of sub-surface rights are difficult to contest: as in most countries around the world (the US is a notable exception, with some complexities regarding First Nations) the Moroccan state claims sovereignty and ownership over the sub-surface. While the French colonial state also claimed public domain over water in Morocco, water rights today are complex and subject to layers of positive, formally Islamic, and customary law. Social mobilizations such as the occupation at the Imider silver mine have foregrounded water depletion and contamination, but sovereignty claims over natural resources and extracted wealth have not figured prominently in Moroccan social movements.
Collectively owned land has also been the site of contestation for extraction projects. The solar installation in Ouarzazate, for example, used colonial laws to expropriate communal land in order to acquire its 3,000-hectare parcel.19 This is the legal framework that is used to govern property transfer in all of Morocco’s collectively owned lands. But, like the Plan Maroc Vert and the Mining Code of 2015, a new collective land law was passed in 2019 to facilitate private investment and expropriation of land deemed underutilized for the purposes of national development.20 There have been discussions for decades about the intractable problems associated with collectively owned land in Morocco. It is difficult to define who has rights in that land and proponents of privatization say that collective ownership precludes investment. These issues were used to justify the 2019 law, which ostensibly rationalizes collective land management. However, preliminary research reveals a widespread fear that it will only accelerate the transfer of land for large-scale investment projects and the imposition of market logics on land that was never subject to sale.
Documenting which bodies of law and administrative procedure govern a given project requires a deep dive into diverse areas of law, some directly related to the extracted resource and others spanning diverse resources, local government administration, taxation, and budgeting. These are dry and difficult areas for even the most experienced scholars or activists to penetrate without legal or fiscal expertise. They do not capture the popular imagination in the same way social mobilizations do. And it may seem like a questionable exercise to develop popular education materials on seemingly arcane corners of law. However, experience in extractives organizing in Latin America and elsewhere indicates that these legal and bureaucratic mechanisms can provide openings for popular resistance or civic engagement.21 The surge in civil society organizing in Morocco around decentralization, transparency, and the rule of law, especially among a handful of ‘observatories’ in rural areas and smaller regional capitals, shows similar potential. Democratizing knowledge of legal and bureaucratic frameworks is important in and of itself, but it can also be a tool for making claims for restitution or accountability, even if these openings are small and change occurs over long timeframes.