Let’s take Morocco as an example, as it has advanced much further in its energy transition than its neighbours. Morocco has set the goal of increasing its share of renewable energy to more than 50 per cent by 2030. The Ouarzazate solar power plant, came online in 2016, is one element in the country’s plan to achieve this goal. The Ouarzazate plant has failed to benefit the impoverished communities that surround it: the Amazigh agro-pastoralists whose lands were used without their consent to install the 3,000-hectare facility.5 Moreover, the debt of $9 billion relating to loans from the World Bank, European Investment Bank and others for the plant’s construction is backed by Moroccan government guarantees, which means potentially more public debt in a country that is already over-burdened with debt. The project, which is a public–private partnership (a euphemism for the privatization of the profits and the socialization of losses through de-risking strategies) has been recording, since its launch in 2016, an annual deficit of around €80 million, which is covered by the public purse. Finally, the Ouarzazate plant uses concentrated thermal power (CSP), which necessitates extensive use of water in order to cool down the system and clean the solar panels. In a semi-arid region like Ouarzazate, diverting water use from drinking and agriculture is outrageous.
Another example of an unjust energy transition is the Noor Midelt project, which constitutes Phase II of Morocco’s solar power plan. Accordingly, Noor Midelt will provide more energy capacity than the Ouarzazate plant and will be one of the biggest solar projects in the world to combine both CSP and photovoltaic (PV) technologies. The Noor Midelt facilities will be operated by the French entity EDF Renewable, the Emirati entity Masdar and the Moroccan conglomerate Green of Africa, in partnership with the Moroccan Agency for Sustainable Energy (MASEN), for a period of 25 years. The project has contracted around $4 billion in debt so far, including more than $2 billion from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the European Investment Bank, the French Development Agency and KfW.6
Construction on Noor Midelt started in 2019, and commissioning was initially expected in 2022. However, delays have accumulated for various reasons, including the slow pace of progress on the solar plan and the political problems that the head of MASEN encountered during 2021, as well as the geopolitical tensions between Morocco and Germany. The Noor Midelt solar complex will be developed on a 4,141-hectare site on the Haute Moulouya Plateau in central Morocco, approximately 20 km north-east of Midelt town. Of this site, a total of 2,714 hectares are managed as communal/collective land by the three ethnic agrarian communities of Ait Oufella, Ait Rahou Ouali and Ait Massoud Ouali, while approximately 1,427 hectares are declared forest land and are currently managed by these communities. This land has been confiscated from its owners through national laws and regulations that allow for expropriation in order to serve the public interest. The expropriation was granted in favour of MASEN by an administrative court decision in January 2017, with the court decision publicly disclosed in March 2017.
In an ongoing colonial environmental narrative that labels the lands to be expropriated as marginal and underutilized, and therefore available for investing in green energy, the World Bank, in a study conducted in 2018,7 stressed that ‘the sandy and arid terrain allow only for small scrubs to grow, and the land is not suitable for agricultural development due to lack of water’. This argument/narrative was also used when promoting the Ouarzazate plant in the early 2010s. At that time one person stated:
‘The project people talk about this as a desert that is not used, but to the people here, it is not desert, it is a pasture. It is their territory and their future is in the land. When you take my land you take my oxygen.’8
The World Bank report does not stop there but goes on to assert that ‘the land acquisition for the project will have no impacts on the livelihood of local communities’. However, the transhumant pastoralist tribe of Sidi Ayad, which has been using that land to graze its animals for centuries, begs to differ. In 2019, Hassan El Ghazi, a young shepherd, declared to an activist from the association ATTAC Morocco:
‘Our profession is pastoralism, and now this project has occupied our land where we graze our sheep. They do not employ us in the project, but they employ foreigners. The land in which we live has been occupied. They are destroying the houses that we build. We are oppressed, and the Sidi Ayad region is being oppressed. Its children are oppressed, and their rights and the rights of our ancestors have been lost. We are “illiterates” who do not know how to read and write…The children you see did not go to school and there are many others. Roads and paths are cut off… In the end, we are invisible and we do not exist for them. We demand that officials pay attention to our situation and our regions. We do not exist with such policies, and it is better to die, it is better to die!’9
In this context of dispossession, misery, under-development and social injustice, the people of Sidi Ayad have been voicing their discontent since 2017 through a series of protests. In February 2019, they carried out an open sit-in, which led to the arrest of Said Oba Mimoun, a member of the Union of Small Farmers and Forest Workers. He was sentenced to 12 months in jail.
Mostepha Abou Kbir, another trade unionist who has been supporting the struggle of the Sidi Ayad tribe, has described how the land was enclosed without the approval of the local communities, who have endured decades of socio-economic exclusion. The land has now been fenced and no-one is allowed to approach it. Abou Kbir contrasts the mega-development projects of the Moroccan state with the fact that basic infrastructure is inexistent in Sidi Ayad. Moreover, he points to another dimension of the enclosure and resource grab, which is the exhaustion of water resources in the Drâa-Tafilalet region for the sake of these gargantuan projects (the Midelt solar plant will be fed from the nearby Hassan II dam) that communities complain they do not benefit from.10 In a challenging context in which owners of small herds are being driven out of the sector, with wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, along with the commoditization of the livestock market and chronic droughts, the Midelt solar project is set to exacerbate the threat to the livelihoods of these pastoralist communities and to worsen their predicament.
It is not only the communities of Sidi Ayad that have voiced concerns about the Midelt project. Women from the Soulaliyate movement have also demanded their right to access land in the Drâa-Tafilalet region and have demanded they receive appropriate compensation for the loss of their ancestral land, on which the solar plant has been built. The term ‘Soulaliyate women’ refers to tribal women in Morocco who live on collective land. The Soulaliyate women’s movement, which began in the early 2000s, arose in the context of intense commodification and privatization of collective lands.11 At this time, tribal women began demanding equal rights and an equal share when plans were made to privatize or divide up their lands. Despite intimidation, arrests and even sieges by public authorities, the movement has spread nationwide and women from different regions now rally behind the Soulaliyate movement’s banner of equality and justice.
Despite all of these concerns and injustices, the Midelt project is going ahead, protected by the monarchy as well as its tools of repression and propaganda. It seems that there is no end in sight for the logic of externalizing socio-ecological costs and displacing them through space and time, which is characteristic of capitalism’s extractivist drive.