|Monday 23 April, 2001
Berbers: The Proud Raiders
They call themselves Amazigh, the proud raiders. But most people know them as Berbers.
For millennia, the Berbers of North Africa fought against Roman, Arab and French invaders. And, despite a history of colonisation, they have managed to preserve their language and culture, and have defended their land.
But all this is set to change. Nine months ago, joint American-Moroccan company Lonestar, began oil exploration and drilling near the town of Talsinnt. Nick Pelham reports from Morocco.
On 20 August 2000, Morocco's King Mohammed VI announced the discovery of large oil fields, estimated to contain 20 billion barrels in crude, near the town of Talsinnt, southeastern Morocco. The oil field lies about 160 km from the Algerian border.
The King described the discovery as 'God's gift to Morocco.'
Oil: God's Gift To Morocco
Lonestar, a subsidiary of Skidmore Energy Inc, won the concession to explore the region and has begun to do so. The oil well is now heavily guarded. To reach the site requires a military escort. No locals have been allowed to visit the oil rig since King Mohammed VI announced the find.
Berbers, who comprise 60% of the Moroccan population, describe the arrival of the oilmen as the entry of yet another conquering army.
Mohammed Boulkoumit, a shepherd who tends ten sheep and a family of five children, said:
|'It's our land, not theirs. They grabbed it without the slightest apology. One day, they arrived on my land with their diggers, and planted their flags. And said the land was now theirs.' |
But Peter Bradley, operations manager for Lonestar Oil Company, believes the Berber demands for compensation are unfounded. His position is clear cut: the Moroccan government should benefit from the discovery of oil and gas reserves but the people who live on top of the underground resources should not.
Advocates for the Berbers say oil fields have been discovered on the land of Berber tribes and any revenue collected should benefit them. During French colonisation, a decree enabled the government to appropriate communal Berber lands. Independence has not changed this and the impetus for dispossession continues.
The discovery of large oil fields could alter Morocco's agrarian-based economy. Agricultural production and fishing engages more than 50% of the population and has made Morocco highly dependent on this sector.
To allay fears of a decrease in agricultural production, King Mohammed VI has said oil revenues would be used for training and agricultural development.
Experts say the find could improve relations with industrialised countries. However, it could also worsen relations with one of Morocco's neighbours: Algeria. Reserves may lie on both sides of the border area.
Toll On Berbers
Locals, on the other hand, argue the oil find will be taking its toll on the environment and the Berber communities. Roads and markets are being constructed. Transportation and technology is being introduced. And people are being displaced.
Hassan Ouzat, a reputed Berber professor at Agadir University, says the Berber people have no where to go:
|'There is no longer any hinterland in North Africa where the native culture can retreat. You can now say for the first time in history, native north African culture – symbolised by its language – is in grave danger of disappearing.' |
The displacement of the Berber people and culture is just another symptom of state-sanctioned marginalisation. The Constitution affirms the legal equality of all citizens and yet Berbers comprise the poorest and highest sector of society.
Although 60% of the population claim Berber (Amazigh) heritage, the official language continues to be Arabic. French is used too – mostly in educational institutions and the media.
The Berber Manifesto, written by Berber intellectuals and activists, demands that their national language be considered official and enshrined in the country's constitution.
Request Two - Among the strangest things, in Morocco, is that the Amazighe language is not officially considered a language. One of the most embittering things for an Amazighe (Berber), in the 'independence era', is to hear...'the official or national language is Arabic…by virtue of the text of the Constitution!'
In 1995 a royal speech by King Hassan II authorised a change in the school curriculum, which would enable Berber languages to be taught in schools. These ammendments are yet to be implemented.
According to a human rights report, the government refuses to register children who have traditional Berber names.
Mustafa, a jobless graduate, has been staging rallies on Morocco's inequality. He says:
'It's not the regime which blessed this land with petrol, it's God. All our lives we faced deprivation and marginalisation by the state. This is the poorest corner of Morocco. We have to benefit. People are dying of hunger.'
'Lonestar has fifty thousand dollars a day to spend on its operations, and not a penny to spend on the people on whose land they're drilling. They think they're in the Wild West of America, and we are Red Indians to be pushed form our land.'
| At A Glance
|Berbers inhabit the lands lying between the Sahara and the Mediterranean Sea, between Egypt and the Atlantic. Most live in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Berbers are not necessarily nomadic. Many are small farmers, living in villages. They thrive on local industries, such as iron, copper, lead, pottery, weaving and embroidery.
The term Berber was introduced in the 7th century by Muslim Arabs, who invaded North Africa.
Berber refers to communities in the Maghreb, the Western Mediterranean coast of North Africa, who share a common ancestry and maintain their tamazight language and culture.
By the 9th century, the Arabs had Islamised most Berbers. Although most are followers of Islam, the Berbers have preserved many of their ancient customs and rituals.
In the words of one historian, 'They have remained like the palm in the oasis and sands of the desert.'