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Morocco plants millions of trees along roads to fight climate change

  • Through the program, which is headed by Morocco’s Highway Authority, more than three million trees have been planted with another 800,000 in the works by 2017.
  • The country’s Department of Agriculture is partnering in the project, which conservationists say paints a stark contrast to many other countries where similar departments pose obstacles to reforestation and afforestation programs.
  • The project is funded domestically, but a government representative told Mongabay they may be interested in receiving support from international forest conservation programs.
  • Those affiliated with the project hope it can be used as a model for other African nations.

MARRAKESH, Morocco – On the new highway that runs southeast from Marrakesh and ascends toward the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, the roadside shows evidence of climate-change progress. Recently planted trees at least ten feet tall with trunks some four inches in diameter stand in short intervals for miles and miles.

Morocco lost about 5 percent of its remaining dense tree cover between 2001 and 2014, according to data from the University of Maryland.  But the data, visualized on the forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch, also show large areas of tree cover gain during the same period, indicating reforestation and afforestation — the planting of trees where they didn’t originally occur.

In hosting the 22nd United Nations Climate Conference, representatives from the Moroccan government are eager speak out and demonstrate that they are serious about tackling climate change and providing a model for other African nations to follow.

Morocco has relatively little dense tree cover, and that which remains  is declining due in part to desertification. Morocco’s government is using reforestation as part of its arsenal against desertification to, among other things, reduce erosion and stabilize sand dunes.

Anouar Benazzouz, general manager of Morocco’s Highways Authority, caught my attention when I heard him on a panel. He proclaimed that his agency has underwritten and planted more than 3 million trees in the country over the past decade. It will plant another 800,000 before the end of 2017, he added. Many of these new trees are planted along newly paved highways.

Benazzouz’s actions appear to stand in sharp contrast to two prominent forest-restoration programs: the Bonn Initiative and the New York Declaration on Forests. Both are supposed to regrow hundreds of thousands of hectares of forests globally. Both receive regular mention at forest events at the Marrakesh summit.

But as Phil Duffy, who heads the Woods Hole Research Center, told Mongabay: “Everyone signed, high-fived and went home. Little has happened. Meanwhile, we are on target, yet again, for the hottest year on record.”

Setting an example

In Morocco, Benazzouz appears to be walking the walk. “The hope is two-fold,” he told Mongabay in an interview. “We want to offset emissions along the new highways we are constructing. And we are planting tree species that are protected in Morocco.”

One example, he said, is the argan tree. The broad, leafy argan, whose seed kernels produce an edible oil also used for skin care, grows up to 10 feet tall and can live for 200 years.

Benazzouz said that under his leadership his agency has built more than 1,100 miles of new highways, with another 300 miles of highways planned in the near future. He realizes that each new mile will increase traffic and thus increase tailpipe emissions.

Anouar Benazzouz, general manager of Morocco’s Highways Authority. Photo by Justin Catanoso

The Moroccan highway chief is not seeking foreign funds to pay for his self-styled, carbon-offset program, even though it may qualify for international assistance.

“We build the cost of the trees into the cost of the highway projects,” he said. “I don’t have an exact number, but we’ve spent many millions planting trees. Twenty-five percent comes from Moroccan taxes; 75 percent comes from debt. Because it’s a part of our ambition and values, we pay the costs.”

He added, however, that he is largely unaware of funding programs from the World Bank or the Green Climate Fund that might help pay for his tree-planting program. Plus, he said he has just started documenting what his agency is doing regarding tree planting.

“Here in Africa, we just don’t know about these things,” Benazzouz said, referring to international financial assistance. “But because we have so many of these [funding] representatives here with us [at COP22], I will be looking into it.”

He added that he consults with his Department of Agriculture when determining what trees to plant and where, and that the two agencies work together closely.

Internal obstacles to progress

Josefina Brana Varela, a senior director of forest and climate for the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, said that in many countries, departments of agriculture often present obstacles to preventing deforestation or promoting reforestation.

“There is the world of negotiations with people going in and out of halls like here in Marrakesh and talking about protecting forests,” Varela told Mongabay. “But in real life, deforestation continues around the world.”

“We have created mechanisms to slow deforestation and worked them into national agendas. We get to the point where the ministries of the environment get on board. But once you reach that point, you don’t get interest from the ministry of the agriculture,” she added. “They clash. They are at odds.

“When environmental ministers ask agriculture ministers to stop giving subsidies for mining and ranching, they say no. The political agenda at that level still doesn’t feel like forests are important, or that the environmental objectives are above the economic interests.”

Goats in an argan tree in Morocco. Photo courtesy of Grand Parc – Bordeaux, France via Wikimedia Commons (CC2.0)

Benazzouz said that isn’t his challenge in Morocco. And he’s glad.

“Africa can play a big role when it comes to climate change; it has to be a priority on this continent,” he said. “We don’t need to make the same mistakes that other countries have made before us.”

In that regard, he said he hopes Morocco can be a role model to other African nations.

“The first example is political stability. You can’t grow and feed your people if you don’t have political stability,” he said. “African nations need this more than anything else. Education is also key. We need to spend on educating our people. With education, these will become the people who bring solutions to the problems we are facing.”

Justin Catanoso, a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, will be covering COP22, his third UN climate summit. He is a regular contributor to His reporting is sponsored by Wake Forest’s Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability.


Tree cover data source: