High Atlas Shrugged – Alex Frumkin

The logo of the High Atlas Foundation (HAF), an NGO I found out about in Marrakesh, Morocco

 

Founded in 1062 north of the Atlas Mountains (specifically the High Atlas range), Marrakesh is one of the four former imperial cities and is now known as the tourist capital of Morocco; having been visited by more than 2 million people in 2017 alone, it’s hard to disagree with this title. However, I personally didn’t care for Marrakesh from a touristic perspective. I’ve already spent four weeks in Morocco, so I’ve spent enough time here being a tourist. Instead, I wanted to come to Marrakesh to learn – the reason I came to Morocco in the first place. But I wasn’t taking classes there; I was learning from experience.

 

In Marrakesh, we learned about several different institutions that are considered part of civil society, the buffer zone between home and government where citizens participate in political life. I later visited an orphanage near the city, but the institution that stood out most to me from a conceptual standpoint was the High Atlas Foundation (HAF). Founded in 2000 by former Peace Corps volunteers, HAF functions as a third-party actor to help communities in Morocco grow and develop, eventually self-sustainably. HAF goes to communities in Morocco that want their assistance and participate in any project that the community decides to pursue, but their largest initiative is the 1 Billion Tree Campaign. Fruit trees are incredibly profitable; just 100 trees (which is pretty small in terms of nursery size) would more than double an agricultural family’s annual income. The High Atlas Foundation is pushing this campaign in order to bring an end to subsistence agriculture and actually create sustainable profit in the country. For example, almonds are only grown in six countries – Morocco is one of them; the expansion of almond production is critical because wheat and barley are the two most grown products, but almonds are far more valuable per metric ton (20x more than wheat and 30x more than barley). Almond trees are just one of many endemic tree types HAF hopes to plant across Morocco in the coming years. Currently, the High Atlas Foundation has only grown 3.5 million trees out of its goal of 1 billion, but it grew 1.4 million in 2017 alone and these numbers will continue to grow – especially as HAF gains access to more land.

 

I had the opportunity to interview the president of the foundation, Yossef Ben-Meir, over Skype. We met briefly in Marrakesh when he gave a presentation about the organization to me and my peers. I decided to reach out to him to learn more about the organization, but also more about him. He himself is not Moroccan, so I was interested in how he ended up spending most of the past 25 years in Morocco.

 

Born in the United States, Ben-Meir was the child of Iraqi Jews. Jewish people have a significant history in the region that is now Iraq, having been present since the time of Babylonia. However, most of the population immigrated to Israel following its independence. Ben-Meir’s parents later immigrated from Israel to the United States, and he was born thereafter. Yossef Ben-Meir grew up in America, but upon graduating from college, he decided to volunteer for the Peace Corps and was stationed in Morocco. While in Morocco, he experienced its beautiful culture but also saw many places that suffered from a lack of clean water and proper healthcare; these sights are what first inspired Ben-Meir to found HAF, but that wouldn’t happen until years later.

 

After serving in Morocco, he returned to the US and got a graduate degree from Clark University. Within a week, though, he took a one-way flight to Morocco and became an associate director of the Peace Corps in Morocco. While serving as associate director, he learned managerial and organizational skills that would be invaluable for his work with the foundation. After working for a few years, Ben-Meir returned to the US to study one last time. He began working on a Ph.D. in the Fletcher School at Tufts, but he was struck by an illness that left him mostly bed-ridden for a year in New Mexico. Not sure what the future held for him, it was at this point in time that Yossef finally pushed for his dream to become a reality; he contacted other former Peace Corps volunteers, and the High Atlas Foundation was founded soon after. In New Mexico, he also discovered sociology and got a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of New Mexico; these years were especially important and formative for Ben-Meir as his studies in sociology have shaped his worldview and the way he operates HAF. Once he earned his Ph.D., Yossef Ben-Meir returned to Morocco, where he remains today. From 2009-2010, he was a professor at the American-funded Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane while serving on the board of the High Atlas Foundation; since 2010, though, HAF needed more direct attention, so Ben-Meir took over as President of Operations and has been in this full-time role since.

 

Today, the High Atlas Foundation, despite its regional name, actually serves in all 12 regions of Morocco, including the Western Sahara. The institution is undertaking approximately 50 projects across Morocco (a staggering number considering the NGO has only 25 employees), but it’s a feasible operation because its organizational structure relies on members of the participating communities doing the vast majority of the work while HAF helps facilitates these actions economically and legally. Of its 50 projects, most revolve around the 1 Billion Tree Campaign, but one particular project concerns interfaith relations as well.

 

Formed in 2012, the House of Life project is the crux of the intersection of sustainable prosperity and cultural preservation. In Al Haouz Province, a rural area outside of Marrakesh, a new nursery was started at the site of the 700-year-old tomb of healer Rabbi Raphael Hacohen. 120,000 seeds of various trees were planted, and they are currently being maintained by 1,000 farmers and 130 schools. By allowing for this Jewish land to be used to help support the lives of many Moroccan Muslims, a critical dynamic of Morocco is made clear: Jewish history/culture is an accepted and appreciated part of the greater Moroccan history/culture. As Ben-Meir himself said, “Jewish culture is in the fabric of the people of Morocco.” This project is critical not just for the importance and optics of interfaith relations but also for major practical implications. The Moroccan government has less than 1,500 parcels of land available and suitable for the cultivation of fruit trees (the Department of Rural Development, Water, and Forests has 700 parcels of land available, the Department of Agriculture has 300, and a few hundred parcels are available across all other departments). Meanwhile, the Jewish community of Morocco has 600 parcels of land available that adjoin Jewish cemeteries across the nation. That vast amount of land would have incredible importance in the High Atlas Foundation achieving its goal of 1 billion fruit trees in Morocco. Not only does that have economic significance, it also has personal significance for Yossef Ben-Meir. Discussing our respective Jewish identities, I told him about the importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to me. Ben-Meir also agreed about the vital importance of this issue to the Israeli and Palestinian people, the region around them, and the world. “Its consequences are global and must be solved for the sake of everyone, especially the parties as it is destroying both societies.” However, he also told me that there are so many other ways to improve the world concerning one’s Jewish values. For him, “There is nothing more important that I can do as a Jewish person in my position for Muslim-Jewish relations and Jewish life in Morocco than making use of [those 600 parcels of land].” Though I’ve only known him for a short time, Ben-Meir has already taught me to reconsider how I view my Jewish values and how I intend to use them to help make the world a better place. And this lesson isn’t meant just for me: anyone can shape the world in a large number of ways using their identities, and there are many ways to do this that aren’t explicitly rooted within one’s identity.

 

So as Yossef Ben-Meir continues to help Morocco in a way that aligns with his identity, I’ll also use my identity to help me change the world. Though I’m not sure how I will do this, I fully intend to use my subjective values in order to objectively improve the world around me.

8 comments to High Atlas Shrugged – Alex Frumkin

  • Mohaimenul Islam

    This was enlightening. It is elegant how the simply the initiative brings out the best of the Muslim-Jewish relations in Morocco. I am sure it was amazing to talk to Ben-Meir. What a fantastic human being!

  • Shailen

    Another nice piece. I like how you view subjective attributes about yourself and how you think as effecting objective change. It’s a cool way of thinking to conceptualize agency from a postmodernist outlook.

  • Josh Curtis

    This was a great read. I have become increasingly skeptical of NGOs and NGO work over the last four years. They are supposed to allow people to provide for themselves rather than rely on government hand-outs, but usually just replace those handouts with foreign handouts by well-meaning elites. High Atlas Foundation does not do that. Instead, it makes use of a simple economic paradigm–distributing work to those best suited to do it–to advance Moroccan economic development.

    Indeed, establishing a sustainable and profitable Moroccan agriculture industry is probably key to developing economic capital and political experience. That’s what happened only 200 years ago in Western countries. I see no reason it can’t happen in Morocco. I look forward to the day when most of the almonds I consume are exported by Moroccan businesses and sourced from profitable family orchards.

  • Andrey

    Wow, that’s awesome that you got to speak to someone of such high importance! It’s great that you’re getting the perspective of those who are attempting to perserve the history of Morocco

  • Fatih kamal

    You’re welcome Alex. Morocco is a country of peace and tolerance. Planting trees is the best way to keep history of someone in somewhere.

  • Great read! I love the fact that Ben-Meir’s project does not impose their own projects on locals but lets them decide to work on what they need done. This type of work is truly guaranteed to help locals in the long run as opposed to some NGOs whose sole purpose is to help their founders. Ben-Meir sounds like a remarkable humanbeing, I hope you never forget the lessons he’s taught you.

  • Kayla

    That’s so incredible!

  • Michael

    Wow, amazing that you got the opportunity to speak to him!

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