One person might not make much of a difference… or can they?
January 15, 2010 Morning
Feeling a bit nervous this morning, pulling on my old torn trekking pants and dirty shirt, not sure if I’ll be arrested, stoned, laughed at or worse. As I leave the hotel I see the usual young guys hanging around with nothing to do. They ask, “where am I going?”, so I invite them to come along and help me clean plastic from the river. We’ll target downstream from the bridge in the centre of town. With Zaid and Hassan in tow, I climb over the concrete wall and begin picking plastic bags from mud, shrubs, under rocks and stuff just plain floating around in the water. The water is shallow and clear making it easy to work one side to the other balancing on rocks where water runs fast and deep. Zaid is in the café asking the waiters for large garbage bags to gather our collected stuff. Soon the waiters help by taking away our full bags for disposal and give us much enthusiastic encouragement when they aren’t busy.
Within half an hour we have the river completely free of plastic 100 feet down from the bridge. It looks fantastic! Zaid and Hassan are feeling good about it too. We have lots of thumbs up from passers by and lots of blank stares. But when invited no one joins us. One French lady stops and wants to know why we aren’t wearing gloves. I invite her to help by finding some but she only walks off. Ah well you can only try. Zaid agrees to meet me after lunch. We’ll start by cleaning up stream from the bridge. Hassan has disappeared.
Up river from the bridge is definitely target zero. I can see mounds of garbage all along the banks. One side is clearly a dumping ground where garbage is burned on a regular basis. There’s even a fire pit full of garbage waiting to be lit. Ironically there are three large green commercial sized refuse bins right beside the bridge. I watch as a man from the market walks past the refuse bins and drops a full garbage bag into the river. I stare in disbelief but he ignores me with stoney determination.
Someone must have told them about the crazy tourist cleaning plastic from the river.
The river here is full of frogs! What biologists call an indicator species thats so sensitive, where it thrives determines a healthy environment. Despite a sewer running directly into the river.
Zaid shows up about 15 minutes later and he jumps in with enthusiasm. Picking plastic here is like picking fruit. Together we work upstream encouraged by singing frogs. Then we notice two men in the river following behind. Zaid tells me they’re city workers and that someone must have told them about the crazy tourist cleaning garbage from the river. They are actually cleaning up garbage we’ve ignored, mainly paper products and anything metal or glass. We soon have the three nearby refuse bins overflowing.
Next a city garbage truck arrives to empty the bins! Hurray!!! We speak to the driver but he’s ignoring us. Zaid told me they only empty the trash once every three days but are supposed to do it every day. I wonder if this was day three or someone is getting the hard rap back at garbage headquarters because of some tourist mucking about in their river. Zaid is really concerned about this situation and wants me to go speak with the minister in charge tomorrow. But I’m thinking I’d rather keep a low profile and use direct action rather than negotiate. I have no big solution but to clean up the mess, and really nothing to say about it that isn’t obvious to anyone with eyes to see. The people who live here are certainly well aware there’s a problem. They need to find their own solutions.
Decided to rent a bicycle this morning and stay overnight in the desert village of Tiwadou. This involves riding over a high mountain pass. I leave Tafroute at 12:30 which was a mistake, climbing the pass in the heat of mid day. To me it seemed the equivalent of the Tizi n Test which is one of the steepest passes in Morocco. I gave up trying to pedal uphill through endless switchbacks with my small pack pulling at my aching shoulders. After 3 hours under the hot desert sun I finally arrive in a village to buy some badly needed water. Immediately after I straddle the bike whooping with joy, fulfilling one of my fantasies of free wheeling down through a deep gorge for miles and miles most of the way to Tiwadou.
All the children took one day off to clean the river…
I arrive in Tiwadou at sunset, dusty, sweaty, and very tired. Four others are also staying in the auberge. They’d done this same ride over two days. We enjoy hot showers, impromtu music on drums and Berber strings and a meal provided by our host Mohamed Sahnoun. Mohamed is well known for his success in making positive change for his village and I ask him about it. He tells me how they’ve built a meeting place where village women are learning to read and write and look after their own affairs without the intervention of the men in the village, who are not allowed to enter their meetings.
Mohamed tells me about his newest project which will be an annual event cleaning plastic from the nearby river. He pulls out a photo album and shows me the children who took a school day off to clean the river, and held a festival to celebrate afterward. Needless to say I was very pleased to hear about this! When I queried why not target the source of the plastic too, he told me their pollution came from upstream, from a gold mine where people live only part of the year.
Most of the road this morning is so rocky my palms feel bruised in spite of having shocks on my bike. I stop to take a few photos of the usual garbage that follows human beings wherever we live. My god we’re dirty animals! However this thought is soon dispersed by the gorgeous landscape. Riding along the quiet road all morning is fantastic once I leave the rocks behind. Dirt paths wind through a valley oasis until I eventually join the paved road at the top of the pass. I hitch my pack onto the seat of my bike and launch off. What fun! At the bottom 15 minutes later I’m looking back at the switchbacks I just rode down at full speed. It took three hours to walk up yesterday? Cripes how fast was I just going?
The x!&# must have hit the fan somewhere at garbage central.
Sweet day! Back in Tafraout having breakfast in the café what do I see? Two men in the river cleaning up garbage!! Now a daily event!!! All the river side refuse bins are empty. The x!&# must have hit the fan somewhere at garbage central. Perhaps this crazy tourist has made a difference. Zaid and I feel very happy and encouraged, and proud of ourselves.
I depart Tafroute today. To get there I have to pass through a town on the Atlantic coast where a new factory has been built. A huge sign says TIZNIT PLASTIC . No shame there. I wonder as we pass, if this is the source of all the blue plastic shopping bags children are peddling in the streets everywhere?
Arrived in a mountain town called Imouzzer – Paradise Valley, famous for its beautiful waterfalls and green fertile valley. I feel totally deflated after the highs of the previous days. I see plastic dumped into the gorge everywhere! It occurs to me that with such great quantity in every ravine and every river there must be massive amounts entering the ocean every day all over this country. This thought is very distressing. I feel disgust when someone hands me a plastic bag. I take a long walk and try not to feel overwhelmed.
Can one person really change anything?
This evening I’m the only one in the hotel. Aneflous my waiter fusses as I eat my dinner. I’m feeling too depressed to say much but he wants company so I listen as he tells me he’s the president of his local village association. Aside from the usual women’s projects, he’s the local authority about proper disposal of plastic for his community. I’m thinking he’s not a very effective communicator because Imouzzer’s paradise is a mess. But his mission isn’t about cleaning up, it’s about giving information to those who ask for it. Aneflous theory is that you have to have the motivation first, then seek the knowledge to take action. Definitely a different approach but perhaps not very effective, and definitely more time consuming. For me, direct action is the only way. Informing by example is the most obvious way to teach and to reach those who are unable to access information, especially in a developing country like Morocco where information is not easy to come by. Knowing the right questions to ask isn’t common knowledge. He tells me Tiznit Plastic is a small offshoot company from one of the big oil companies based in Casablanca and that the directors probably live in Europe so don’t even think about trying to talk to them. But that got me thinking about how great it would be if Tiznit Plastic could sponsor a cleanup campaign.
I hear the word mushkal over and over.
I love it when you are open to ideas and they come pouring in! On the TV at the Agadir bus station today I catch the tail end of a news broadcast showing mounds of garbage. I hear the word mushkal over and over. Mushkal is Arabic for problem.
THEN AND NOW
Over the years I’ve been living and working in Morocco I’ve seen plastic grow from a few bags blowing across the Sahara, to clogged rivers and watersheds everywhere, from a few bags left by roadsides, to huge dumps filling ravines and gorges.
In 2017 I returned to Tafraoute and Tiwadou. Mohamed has sadly passed away, and most of the children have moved to the cities. However everywhere I saw positive signs of sparkling clean water ways. The picture below was taken about the same location as the picture above. The difference is striking.
This is near the same location as the picture above 7 years later, looking fantastic.
In developing countries where information is not readily available to citizens, it can take governments a long time to develop solutions for problems. I believe people are encouraged by positive examples. Tourism is very important in Morocco. As a tourist anyone can make the problem seen and heard most easily by taking direct action. And I have to add, it feels so very good to pick up that first bag!
Will you join me?