Would a democratic Morocco be more sustainable?
Last month, Morocco saw one of its worst ecological disasters [Eng.] as tens of thousands of fish were found dead in the river Moulouya [Eng.]. Sustainable development advocates blamed a sugar factory in Zaïo (north eastern Morocco) as being responsible for polluting the river by dumping chemicals in it. In a recent statement the official news agency said analysis of the river’s waters came out negative thus exonerating the sugar factory. The activists made their own analysis and are actually trying to mount an independent investigation. In an interview[ar] with the well-established Citizen Media Mamfakinch, Mohammed Benata, president of the Solidarity and Cooperation Platform in eastern Morocco (ESCO) said that NGOs investigating the death of the fish faced opposition from the authorities who – he said – were trying to shield the sugar factory from responsibility [Fr.]. Other commentators linked the authorities’ obstruction of the independent investigation to the fact that the factory belongs to a company in which the King holds shares.
On other leading Moroccan platforms [Ar], one can find different versions of the story: an Algerian salt factory is said to be responsible for polluted water infiltrating the groundwater and thus for pollution of the Moulouya and the death of the fish. Some of the newspapers said to be independent like Akhbar Al Youm (which has a history of standoffs with the Moroccan authorities) also ran this version without mentioning the hypothesis of the sugar factory.
The official media agency version of August 7th 2011 (since removed from online archives) was headlined “Pollution of the Moulouya River: Toxicological analysis results are negative”. The communiqué from the technical commission of vigilance instigated by the governors of the Nador and Berkane regions states that the analysis did not show the presence of any toxins in the bodies of the dead fish.
Astonishingly, the communiqué went on to say “Meanwhile, physico-chemical analysis on samples from the river’s water reveal a very low oxygen concentration of less than 5 mg/l” and concluded that this proves that the death of the fish was more likely to have been caused by asphyxia due to the lack of oxygen. The communiqué ends with a long and very confusing section mixing up the river, agricultural organic wastes and the fish species to give it a semblance of rigor for non-scientific readers.
This story shows that environmental issues like this one can show the limits both of media independence and government transparency. Indeed, the reluctance of the media to link this ecological disaster to the sugar factory can be explained by the link the factory has to the Maroccan royal family. We can only wonder whether this would also be the case in a liberal democracy if the media were somehow subject to big company pressure. Given that independent media (independent from the state or political parties) rely on advertising, would they dare link an ecological disaster to one of their main marketing partners?
Lately, probably under the pressure of NGOs’ increasing support for the ESCO, and coverage on citizen media, the second Moroccan state television “2M” did an interview with Mohamed Benata where he was finally able to speak his mind on the official investigation that gave a clean bill of health to the sugar factory. But the subtle aspect of this illusionary media coverage is that on this mainstream TV channel Mr Benata was not able to present the material he had showing explicitly that the polluted water came from the factory. He was only presented as a critic of the official investigation without being given any opportunity to present his proof.
In her lead article, Ulrike Rheinard wonders whether democracy is a guarantee for climate protection policies. From a Moroccan perspective and with the above story in mind I can say:
– The example of the Moulouya disaster shows that when a political system is centralized, and when economic and industrial players are tightly bonded with media and policy-makers (or are themselves policy-makers) rather than media and policy-makers being closely connected with citizens and NGOs, there are big risks for the environment. Media which should act as a catalyzer for citizen awareness becomes a cosmetic tool for industry or policy-makers or both.
– My personal answer to Ulrike Reinhard’s question would be a nuanced ‘yes’. Environmentally harmful policies are more flagrant and less subject to accountability in dictatorships. For example in the 20th century, under Stalin the USSR built several closed cities for nuclear projects where only workers for nuclear programs lived. As a pay off for accepting the health risks, the citizens were provided with much better living conditions than the other soviets – good schools, more comfortable houses and so on. These closed cities are still radioactive and classified as state secrets. The Bhopal catastrophe in India and French nuclear tests in Algeria are other examples of dictatorships exposing citizens to hazardous environmental conditions. In all these examples we see that environmental threats can hardly be averted by pressure from the people when a lack of accountability makes it impossible for them to question policy-makers.
– In western liberal democracies, though, the media still sometimes play an harmful role by spreading preconceived ideas or by giving “climate skeptics” or “renewable energies skeptics” more coverage than what their point of view really represents in the scientific community. At the 2010 Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum on “The Heat is on – Climate Change and the Media” I had the opportunity to attend the workshop on “Coverage vs. Advocacy” where this issue of balancing media coverage was discussed. I will come back to this in a later post. The key point, though, is the citizen’s right to neutral information. If this right were given and used, the risk of manipulation as in the debates on nuclear energy or prejudices about some forms of renewable energy like photovoltaic power (solar energy) would be reduced.
To go back to my initial question of whether a democratic Morocco would be more sustainable, my viewpoint is that even if an advanced democracy were established in Morocco, and even if the level of accountability among policy-makers were increased and governance kept in its centralized form, we might still have industrial, tourist or infrastructural policies harmful to the environment. If more power were given to locally elected representatives instead of to governors reliant on the interior ministry people would have more control of state projects in their region.
Up to now nearly all the major projects in Morocco criticized for their environment–unfriendliness are the result of centralized policy-making. Tourism policies are the main culprit here. In the same region where the Moulouya fish disaster happened, the state authorized a huge real estate project on the seacoast near a site classed as a Site of Community Importance near estuary of the river Moulouya. Mediterranea Saidia is said to be one of the worst tourism projects on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco not just because of the damage done to the river estuary area but also because its plundering of sand has led to destabilization of the coastline.
A sustainable Morocco can only exist under democracy. Nevertheless this democracy should be regionalized, should allow for regional independence from central economic players, and should provide a safe climate for media independence.
 In the Moulouya case, the investigation was lead by governors (non elected, appointed by the King through the Ministry of the Interior). Local NGOs were obstructed in their independent investigations.