Building a Common Vision for a Sustainable School Garden

By Hajar Benmazhar, Morocco Field Scientist and Mediterranean Communications Officer, Global Diversity Foundation and Moroccan Biodiversity and Livelihoods Association

Global Diversity Foundation and  are continuing to work with Dar Taliba Ourika school to conserve wild plant species and traditional crop varieties for local communities, and train Dar Taliba students in processes of conservation and indigenous plant knowledge. As part of our project, we will re-design and expand the ethnobotanical garden on the school grounds in collaboration with the girls currently in residence at the all-girls’ boarding house that gives 154 Amazigh girls (ages 13 – 18) from remote villages of the Ourika Valley an opportunity to continue their education beyond primary school. This is part of our wider six-year programme to maintain cultural practices in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco through the conservation of biodiversity and enhancement of sustainable land-based economies and wellbeing.

Discussing the irrigation and educational aspects of the project.

This summer, the MBLA team held a successful project kick off meeting at Dar Taliba to share ideas, plan activities and agree on our implementation strategy. We met with key project partners RESING, a Marrakech-based hydrology engineering firm, and permaculture design specialists, Radiant Design.

The day of our visit was one of those excruciatingly hot summer days in Ourika but as soon as we set foot in Dar Taliba, the smell of mint tea and a gentle breeze welcomed us. The usually vibrant place was rather serene and quiet as most girls had gone back home to spend the holidays with their families. With their warm smiles and usual hospitality, Jamila Boussatta, the Director of Dar Taliba, Brahim Akensous, Dar Taliba staff, and Abdelmalek Ait Moujjaddark, the school gardener, welcomed us into their cosy kitchen where we enjoyed the taste of local tea and cracked terrible, weather-related, jokes. A couple of minutes later, we decided it was time for us to brave the sun and visit the garden where the project will be implemented.

Abdelmalek Ait Moujjaddark (Dar Taliba Gardener) and Hassan Rankou (MBLA Director) inspecting the organic onions growing in the gardens.

First item on the agenda was to finalise the design of the new garden. The garden will include a nursery where some 25 medicinal and aromatic plant species will be planted during the months of September and October 2017. All the species grown in the nursery have been identified through participatory research amongst local communities as useful, threatened or endemic – many of these have high market value including thyme, lavender and sage. Most of the species from the nursery will be distributed to the wider community over the course of the project for planting in wild and cultivated areas of community territories, both to provide for community needs and to enhance wild populations. A small amount will be kept for the demonstration gardens within the school grounds. The garden will also include the creation of a community seed bank that will ensure that both wild plant species and traditional crop varieties are conserved for posterity. Using low-tech, locally-appropriate approaches for building and maintenance, this community seed bank will be able to host hundreds of seed accessions.

The gardens will be supported by a newly established state-of-the-art irrigation system designed by RESING that will allow for year-round growing and maintenance of all the garden’s medicinal, aromatic, edible and ornamental plants and trees. This will ensure the sustainability of the upcoming re-design, according to permaculture design principles, of the entire 6,000 m2 gardens. We’re therefore excited to see that the construction of the irrigation system is now in full swing with RESING currently in the process of conducting topographic work to bring water from the main river source to Dar Taliba with a high flow and sufficient quantity. The installation will be completed before the end of the year. In the meantime, the garden is being irrigated with water provided by a local association.

Working on the garden’s new design. From right to left: Fabien Tournan (Radiant Design staff), Hassan Rankou (MBLA Director), Jihane Rmiza (Resing Staff), Jamila Boussatta (Dar Taliba Director), Mohamed El Haouzi (MBLA President and Dar Taliba Focal Point), Abdelmalek Ait Moujjaddark (Dar Taliba Gardener).

The team also discussed the educational aspect of the project, which will be led by Laila Suzuki of Radiant Design. The programme will focus on topics ranging from permaculture cultivation methods to seed saving, via water management, post-harvest plant processing and marketing of plant products. External facilitators will be invited to help develop the curriculum and deliver the training. Moreover, a schedule allowing all Dar Taliba students to actively participate in the management of the garden, nursery and seed bank is being developed. Through this educational programme, the girls will develop the necessary tools to ensure the sustainability of the project. The educational aspect will form an integral part of the project, as explained by Dar Taliba staff and our partners:

I personally believe that the girls will learn a lot from this project. They all love working in the garden and are always excited to learn more about each plant. The knowledge they will acquire here will not only help them but it will also help their respective communities. I’d love for this project to continue in time and to grow, and I hope for the girls to gain more knowledge about the essential oils, which will enable them to create local products that could later on be commercialised. – Jamila Boussatta, Dar Taliba Director.

I’d love to see these girls learning more about gardening and the protection of their environment. In case the girl doesn’t finish her studies, she’ll at least have this invaluable knowledge to take back to her community. –Hassan Sakti, Association de bienfaisance et de développement du Bassin de l’Ourika, ABDBO.

Work will continue apace over the next few months with construction of the garden due to be completed by the end of the year. Once the gardens are ready, the girls and local community will begin participating in their management and developing skills in permaculture cultivation methods, seed saving, water management, post-harvest plant processing and marketing of plant products…We cannot wait!

All photos by Hajar Benmazhar, Morocco Field Scientist and Mediterranean Communications Officer