How the Indigenous Amazigh people in Morocco fight for language and land

January 5, 2023

This article was originally published on Waging Nonviolence.

The death of Queen Elizabeth II in the United Kingdom has shed light on the struggles of Indigenous people against colonial extractive capitalism across the world. This provides the opportune moment to reflect upon one of the longest protests in Africa— led by the Indigenous Amazigh community in southeast Morocco against the highly exploitative extractive mining industry. Although it concluded around 2020, after a nearly decade-long protest, this movement was preceded by the historical struggle for recognition of the Amazigh identity, culture and language.

The Indigenous Amazigh are often referred to as “Berber,” a term they consider derogatory. The Amazigh (Imazighen in plural) are descendants of the pre-Arab people of North Africa and were traditionally nomadic. Today they farm crops and travel to nearby villages for trade. They are mainly Muslim by faith, with a population of 30 to 40 million dispersed across the Maghreb region (northwest Africa), with most of them living in Morocco and Algeria. Their common identity is affirmed through their language, ethnicity, culture and shared history. During the period of Arab conquest, their Tamazight language was replaced by Arabic. Subsequently, through the Arab and Ottoman empires, European colonial occupation and national independence of Morocco, the  Imazighen have had neither the right to self-determination nor the right to their identity, and the linguistic repression continues even today.

Throughout the Maghreb region, various Imazighen movements have emerged over the years in response to repression and domination faced by the community. In Morocco, most of the poverty-stricken regions are predominantly Amazigh, which have higher rates of illiteracy than the rest of the country and lack basic state services and infrastructure in the rural mountainous territories.

Movements towards preserving their linguistic heritage have been met with resistance from the Moroccan state, which include the termination of the Institut Royal De La Culture Amazighe, orIRCAM, the only academic institution focused on protecting Amazigh heritage.

However, Amazigh resistance through language revival is not a story of the 21st century — it began in the 1970s. The unification of the Tamazight alphabet and the creation of texts, poetry and co-learning across states where Imazighen people live, has contributed to its revival and has ensured that future generations will speak their mother tongue. Movements remain central to the fight for the Amazigh language rights and their right to self-determination, especially in the northern Rif region. And this extends to issues of livelihood.

The Imazighen’s more recent anti mining struggle — known as the “Amussu xf Ubrid n 96” or “Movement on the Road 96” began on August 20, 2011, when activists from Imider — a municipality with more than seven villages — climbed Mount Alebban in the High Atlas Mountains and shut down a pipeline diverting water from the reservoir to a silver mine that has been operational for nearly four decades.

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The mining is conducted by the Moroccan Société Métallurgique d’Imiter, or SMI, which is part of the multinational corporation Managem, which is in turn linked to a private company of the Moroccan royal family: Société Nationale d’Investisement, or SNI. The mine at Imider began producing silver in 1984 and is the largest silver mine in Africa — ranked as the 15th largest in the world and producing over 200 tons of pure silver every year. The mine utilizes 12 times more water than the daily village consumption in the area.

Since 1986, the residents of villages around the mine have engaged in a multitude of protests against SMI, including a sit-in for 45 days in 1996. Their protest actions, towards opposing the exploitation of natural resources and the environmental destruction caused by SMI, have often led to brutal suppression at the hands of the state. The protestors have raised many concerns: damage to crops and environment, livestock fatalities, food insecurity, dustbowlification, and the loss of biodiversity and large-scale disturbance of hydrological and geological systems. Such concerns have been dismissed by the Moroccan government, which frames any opposition to the mine as opposition to state power. The escalation of the resistance in 2011, when protests became more or less permanent, began as a response to the continued problem of depletion of aquifers, pollution by the mine, unemployment, and the lack of basic social infrastructure in a rural, impoverished part of the country.

The mine claimed that it met all global environmental standards and was spending more than $1 million annually building schools and supporting community projects in the area.  Activists maintain that these projects only benefit mine employees, who were brought from other cities.

A report by INNOVAR, an independent Moroccan hydrogeological group, blamed the decrease of water entirely on the mine. An investigation in 2013 led by the Moroccan Association of Investigative Journalism found that the concentration of toxic elements such as arsenic, cobalt, cadmium and lead in the region often exceeded international standards. The investigation included testimonies from village residents about the increase of cancer, skin and respiratory diseases. Activists have long been calling for independent health studies on the effects of the mine’s toxic output.

The protestors built a series of brightly-painted stone buildings, including an open-air gallery and occupied the site of the mine. Over time, the camp transformed into a “living archive” of hundreds of drawings, poems, songs, documents, photographs, written statements, petitions, letters and social media pages. The camp itself told the story of the mining industry in Morocco by those it affected most, while simultaneously countering the misleading state narrative that focused solely on the success of the extractive industry and how the mine was bringing development and employment to local villages.

Over the next few years, activists continued to protest, by occupying land and buildings, shutting down water service, as well as organizing on social media, using art, guerrilla theater and other creative actions. They called for an independent environmental impact study and even took their demands to the UN Climate Change Convention’s annual conference, COP 22, which was held in Marrakesh in 2016. The protesters strove to pressure the government to end the exploitation of their water resources, provide local jobs, and establish a school and hospital.

The protest encampment of the mine was funded by a dollar-per-month fee paid by each family and was maintained by a core group of people that always remained in the camp around the clock. “Agraw,” or the tribal general consultative assembly system of democracy, formed the basis of the organizing structure. Men, women, students and children met at the camp on a bi-weekly basis to assess the situation and decide on future strategies. This participatory, non-hierarchical and customary governance method contradicts the falsehood often spread claiming that democracy was brought to the Maghreb by the West.

Imider shared a motto with the Indigenous protesters at Standing Rock in North Dakota: “aman iman,” or “water is life/soul.” And like Standing Rock, the movement itself was far greater than the group that had settled on the mountain, with supporters often showing solidarity by participating in marches, strategy meetings and the agraw at the camp. The movement also managed to build solidarity with foreign academics, journalists and NGOs.

A negotiating committee was elected in 2011 to meet with representatives of the Moroccan royal family’s company, as well as the governor of Tinghir province. However, the negotiations did not solve the situation and came to a halt after 16 meetings. Instead, the movement faced severe repression, including criminalization, fabricated charges, torture and arrests of activists. The police did not regularly frequent the camp but muqaddimiya (spies for the state) did. Between 2011-2017, 33 activists were arrested and imprisoned on — what one Amazigh activist called — “groundless and fabricated charges.” In 2014, when the protesters shut down the pipeline, SMI’s production of silver went down by more than 15 tons, and caused a 36 percent reduction in the processing capacity of the mine.

By 2018, the movement estimated that it had stopped 3 million tons of water from reaching the mine since 2011.

Before dismantling the camp, activists were able to close one of the main water valves, but many other valves remain operational. In 2019, Amussu, a documentary about this struggle won the “Nouzha Drissi Grand Prix” at the 11th Agadir International Documentary Film Festival. 

At its base, the struggle is one of a rural, Indigenous population against the “makhzen,” a Moroccan term for the interlocking security-bureaucratic-economic ruling apparatus of the state. The people of Imider refused to be silent in the face of environmental devastation. They elected to use their people power in a manner that showed a commitment to building a community that was both democratic and inclusive. They have exhibited fearlessness in the face of state repression.

The community at Imider is the perfect example of resilience in the face of constant state aggression. These communities demanded their rights using all the means at their disposal. It is essential to recognize that resistance to the dominant narrative — in this case state power — is the basis of the creation of any alternative system. Constructive resistance are those actions which are undertaken by communities to live beyond the dominant structures of state power in a manner that elects to resist aggressive state policies, capitalism, green grabbing and exclusivity; while building, creating and educating based on innovative responses to the needs of those communities.

While the sit-in has drawn to a close, the movement continues its activism in other forms. Committee members stay in touch — for example, the film Committee is currently supervising the coordination of documentary film screenings across various libraries, academic and cultural institutes. Other committees still organize along with a network of human rights groups to achieve the same goals as the long protest camp sought to do, towards protecting the socioeconomic, environmental and cultural rights of the inhabitants of the region.

Perhaps the words of Aida Alami sum up the Amazigh movement the best:

“After each meeting held at the foot of the hill, the villagers walk back home holding up three fingers — one for the Berber language, one for the land  and one for mankind — hoping for someone to hear their call.”

This story was produced by Resistance Studies


Teaser photo credit: Amazigh village in the High Atlas mountains of MoroccoBy I, Luc Viatour, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Shabnam Mayet

Shabnam Mayet is an Advocate based in South Africa and the co-founder of Protect the Rohingya.

Tags: anti-extractivism, indigenous rights