Seeing a Forest for the Trees: Environmental Advocacy in Morocco

May 11, 2017

The park is marked by a network of trails featuring native and exotic plants.

The park is marked by a network of trails featuring native and exotic plants.

Can you even imagine New York City without Central Park? Without the lush oasis in the middle of the concrete jungle, most would agree that the city simply wouldn’t be the same. In Tangier, a bustling coastal city on the northern edge of Morocco bordering the Strait of Gibraltar – best known for its easy access to Spain by way of a constant flow of ferries – Parc Perdicaris serves the same purpose. Located high above the city, reached by a steep uphill drive through winding roads and located just past the Moroccan king’s palace in Tangier, Parc Perdicaris is more forest than park.

Built on a mountain bluff with stunning 360-degree views of the water hundreds of feet below and marked by a labyrinth of trails, the park is free to residents and tourists alike. The park serves as both an escape from city life and an environmental treasure trove, with many of the plants and flowers featured along the trails being rare and unusual for the region. According to local lore, the park was built as a gift from “Ambassador” Perdicaris to his wife when she fell ill. With his wife too weak to venture into the city, the Ambassador cultivated the land surrounding their home on top of the cliff to encourage his wife to get out and walk in the fresh air. Each trail notably features different, distinct types of plants, to keep her from getting lost and help find her way back to their home at the end of each day.

Despite this storybook history and popularity among visitors, the fate of Parc Perdicaris has come into question in recent years. In 2011, the Governor proposed clearing the Parc in favor of building more villas for wealthy residents to live in and enjoy the spectacular views. Eager to protect both the environmental value and cultural heritage of the Parc, civil society organizations, unions, political parties, and environmental groups began meeting to discuss what could be done to change the Governor’s mind.

Rather than angrily approach the government, these groups took a more strategic and collaborative approach. They spent a year working together, ultimately uniting seven political parties and 56 different civil society organizations in their quest to protect the park. Realizing that they were more powerful as one, these partners formed a formal association: L’Observatoire de Protection de l’Environnement et des Monuments Historiques de Tanger (OPEMH). Together, these new partners spent a year developing their strategy, first meeting quietly and then coordinating more publicly to develop advocacy strategies and public outreach campaigns against the proposed deforestation.

Working with local universities and scientific leaders in the community, the association developed indicators, conducted a study, and in 2012 published a report about the environmental impact of destroying the Parc. Convinced by both the widespread public outcry and the scientific evidence mounting against building the villas, the Governor announced that Parc Perdicaris would not only be spared, but would be protected by a new law – the first of its kind in Morocco – establishing the park as a landmark protected from future harm.

A sign greets visitors to Parc Perdicaris

Tangier’s Parc Perdicaris serves as an escape for tourists and residents.

Buoyed by their success, OPEMH has since continued to grow, bringing other environmental groups into the association. OPEMH’s commitment to scientific integrity and using evidence-based reports supports its public outreach campaigns to improve the environment throughout Tangier. Counterpart International’s Civil Society Strengthening Program has been working with the OPEMH since 2016 and provides technical assistance to raise the capacity of the group’s leadership, who are gaining a strong reputation not only in Tangier, but on the international stage as well.

USAID, Global Civil Society Strengthening, and Counterpart International