As I think about the few days I spent in Asilah talking to landowners and learning about the drama simmering beneath the surface of this beautiful place, it is not just the thought of the rolling hills being leveled for rich men to play polo that I find so unsettling but the possibility that one very powerful man may actually succeed at completely altering this place. From what I hear, the system certainly is not in the favor of the people we met who are fighting to preserve their land.
I know I only grazed the surface of this drama in my time near Asilah. It seems like a soap opera with its many bigger-than-life characters and startling plot twists. But it’s real – and affecting deeply an entire community.
The beach near Asilah, Morocco – about 50 kilometers down the coast from the straight of Gibraltar – is like few places still nearly untouched in the world. Here, a patchwork of green fields blanket rolling hills, giving way to a deserted sandy beach that stretches for miles. The waves crash with only a few farmers to hear them. Even on a stormy day, it remains an escape for a city-dweller, far from taxi drivers’ blaring horns and the hustle of Morocco’s crowded medinas.But for a man named Mounir, this is definitely not an escape.
He seems to be indirectly embroiled in a land battle with a French businessman who has acquired much of this pristine property and begun to develop it. It is all very complex. We visited the sight where sits a polo field only meters from the beach, but no one’s around to play. For now. A new road, dusty by sun and muddy by rain, winds its way up and down the hills toward the future polo turf. Near the field, a luxury home is under construction: a concrete structure that stands out from the modest stone farmhouses nestled into the hillsides.
If it weren’t so tragic it would be comical – a polo field in this place where farmers tend their livestock and only a few visitors find their way to the undeveloped beach. But, for Mounir – and other Moroccan landowners in the area who have lived on this land for generations – the threat of development is hard to fight.
We arrived as a small group of journalism students and journalists to learn more about Mounir’s fate in this heated dispute. Mounir, a fit man, who wears a New York Yankees baseball cap over his shaved head, has bought some land on which he plans to build small stone homes. He plans to sell them to people wishing to live in a place untouched by beach-crazed development.
The more we learned, the more we discovered endless layers of political dealings, judicial maneuvering and economic pressures. The never-ending twists and turns of this particular land battle are surprising. And disturbing.
Scores of families have been pressured to sell as the rich investor continues to amass as much of the countryside as possible. Another person who inspired our trip is someone facing an unequal fight against the French businessman and his associates.
The man, known as Hercules, has even been to jail for trying to defend his property and his family. And Mounir may face a similar fate. He is charged with allegedly assaulting a contractor connected to the project – he claims that the evidence against him was falsified.
But what’s the solution? Maybe the landowners need to consolidate and protest. Maybe international environmentalists should look into the water access the businessman is altering to irrigate his polo field. Maybe the Minister of Justice needs to intervene in Mounir’s trial imposing fairness.
Or maybe, the landowners should just give up. And get out. If I were in their situation, I might be tempted to cut my losses, sell my land and avoid the constant fear that the businessman and his associates are watching me. Waiting for me to make one wrong move and slap me with an unfounded lawsuit.
I have a lot of respect for this diverse group of Moroccans who refuse to give in to those who seem so much more powerful and well-connected. Despite intense pressure, men like Hercules and Mounir refuse to fold. Mounir is committed to keeping hold of his land. He won’t sell. “There’s no point, life would have no flavor,” he said.
The beach around Asilah may be like few places in the world. But it’s facing a fight against foreign development not uncommon in developing countries. Let’s hope that the Mounirs and Herculeses of the world continue to stand up for their property, their communities and the integrity of their land.