Monday, May 30, 2011

Police Violence Against Protesters in Morocco Reaching New Levels

Here is an article from It seems as if the official Moroccan stance on protests has changed from the initial tolerance witnessed months ago. The whole world is (still) watching.

Police violence reaching new levels in Morocco with Sunday beatings

From Martin Jay, For CNN
May 30, 2011 -- Updated 2224 GMT (0624 HKT)

Protesters say police on motorcycles struck out with truncheons
Government spokesman says demonstrators were provocative
EU calls for restraint from government
Protesters want more freedom, jobs, better conditions

Casablanca, Morocco (CNN) -- Security forces in Morocco appear to be intensifying their hard-line crackdown on demonstrators, with a second violent clash over the weekend leaving scores of youths injured.

On Sunday there were bloody battles on the streets between a youth movement and police. It was the second weekend in a row that police have beaten protesters with long truncheons.

Fevrier 20, Morocco's Facebook youth movement, staged a rally in the country's commercial capital without permission from the government Sunday -- sparking waves of police violence and in some cases panicking from individual officers, according to at least one YouTube video clip that shows an officer kicking and striking an old woman caught in the frenzy at least once with a baton.

The same clip shows a young man on the ground being beaten and kicked by officers while other colleagues on motorcycles accelerate through crowds striking protesters with long batons.

Mounaim Ouihi, one of the organizers of Sunday's protest, said 15,000 people gathered in the Sbata district of Casablanca to demand more democratic freedoms, jobs and better social conditions. He said police sealed off streets around the district to block people, swelling the numbers, then sent several 30-strong squads of truncheon-wielding officers charging into the crowd.

"There was a lot of violence, and we are now calling a halt," Ouihi said. "This protest has again sent out our message demanding freedom."

Yet perhaps it's a message that has fallen on deaf ears in Rabat, the country's administrative capital. The government's chief spokesman said the demonstration was banned and that police acted in response to what he described as provocative behavior by the protesters.

The protesters "were warned that this protest was illegal but their behavior was provocative," Communications Minister Khalid Naciri said. He added that there had been counter-protests in Casablanca, Rabat and Fez by citizens who wanted to express their anger at the damage to the Moroccan economy caused by the Fevrier 20 protests.

"We are concerned about the violence used ... We call for restraint in the use of force and respect of fundamental freedoms," European Union spokesperson Natasha Butler said. "... We call on Morocco to maintain its track record in allowing citizens to demonstrate peacefully. We are following these demonstrations very closely, and encourage all parties to engage in a peaceful dialogue with a view to finding solutions to the issues raised by the demonstrators."

In Morocco, unlike many other Arab countries, demonstrations are usually permitted, as long as a formal application is made to the state.

The youth movement claims it has never applied for permits and it is just recently that the government is using this as a pretext to hit it hard.

"Now we are just a few weeks away from the constitution being announced by the king's own committee and they don't want any more protests," said a protester who wished to be known only as Imad and who was injured in the battle Sunday.

Imad claims the police injured "around 100 people" who took to the streets Sunday as an immediate show of defiance to the previous weekend. Then, Moroccan police quelled a number of protests across the entire country, stopping supporters of the youth movement demonstrating against corruption and demanding more jobs. The May 22 demonstrations ended in a huge number of casualties and arrests. According to Fevrier 20, some 90 protesters were hurt, six with fractured arms and two with fractured legs.

Neither Sunday's nor May 22's demonstrations were legal, according to the government.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Soccer Player Ibrahim Afellay Role Model for Moroccan Immigrant Communities in the Netherlands

Here is a piece from Radio Netherlands about the Moroccan Soccer (Football) Player Ibrahim Afellay and his positive infleunce on youth in Moroccan immigrant communities in the Netherlands.
Football star Afellay shines a light for Moroccan immigrant community

Published on : 26 May 2011 - 3:17pm | By Johan van der Tol

Ibrahim Afellay plays for FC Barcelona in their Champions League final against Manchester United on Saturday. Though he hasn’t yet had much field time at the European level for the club, ‘Ibi’ is already a star. The Dutch footballer has become a role model for children from Moroccan immigrant communities in Barcelona and back home in the Netherlands.

To what does Ibi owe his popularity?

According to talent scout for Ajax Amsterdam Mohammed Boussatta, Ibi enjoys a good image. “It’s the way he presents himself in the media, what he’s like in public and how he treats his family. Despite getting to the top, he hasn’t forgotten where he came from,” says Boussatta.

Spare ground
Apart from looking after his mother and other relatives – his father died when he was young – Ibi is recognized as someone who provides for the wider community. He funded a project to lay artificial turf on some spare ground in Al Hoceima. Now kids in the northern Morocco town can kick a ball around.

When he was young, Mr Boussatta himself used to kick a ball around. The Ajax scout shared a small square in his Amsterdam neighbourhood with future soccer stars such as Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit. He would also see a whole generation of Dutch-Surinamese footballers grow up, including Clarence Seedorf.

So, will there be a generation of Dutch-Moroccan footballers in Ibi’s wake? Mr. Boussatta is optimistic.

“I think they’ll be even better, because Moroccan kids still play a lot on the street or on odd patches of ground. That’s why they have so much skill: there’s a mix of Brazilian technique, African mentality and Dutch tactics. That makes a player like Afellay, and those who’ll follow him, even more interesting.”

Ordinary kid
Sociologist Iliass El Hadioui is a fellow member of the Moroccan-Dutch community. According to Mr El Hadioui: “Afellay is still a kid; he comes across as nice. He behaves ordinarily – the way he’s still connected to the neighbourhood in Utrecht where he grew up and to his religion.”

“The way he still observes Ramadan is especially important, that he still fasts even when he’s playing top-level soccer. It’s physically draining. While other players choose the easier way, he practises his faith in terms of spirituality and religion. That’s won him lots of points with Moroccan kids.”

Beyond the field
Mr El Hadioui has done a lot of research into the street life of kids from Moroccan and Turkish communities in the Netherlands. According to the sociologist, they find ‘macho’ sports such as kick-boxing and football important because opponents can be outplayed and humiliated.

Ibi appears to have popularized the game among Dutch-Moroccan youth. His story has allowed young men in his community to realise they can also succeed beyond the football field, says Mr El Hadioui.

Role models evolve naturally
Youth from the Moroccan immigrant community figure relatively high in Dutch crime statistics. Can Ibi do something about that? Mr El Hadioui doesn’t think the footballer should necessarily take part in a government campaign to steer them away from trouble or towards bettering their quality of life. “Role models evolve naturally,” he said.

“As soon as the government or some other group makes use of them in a campaign, the kids on the street know that it’s cooked up. I think that would be counter-productive.”


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Moroccan Police Beat Protestors in Pro-Democracy Rallies

Here is an article from Reuters on the violence that met peaceful protesters today all across Morocco.
Keep Hope Alive !

Many Wounded as Moroccan Police Beat Protestors

By Adam Tanner and Souhail Karam
RABAT/CASABLANCA | Sun May 22, 2011 7:40pm EDT

(Reuters) - Moroccan police beat protesters who defied a ban on demonstrations across the country on Sunday, leading to arrests and dozens of injuries, some of them life threatening, witnesses said.

The violence appears to signal a tougher government line against the protest movement, which has become more defiant after festive demonstrations starting in February, but has yet to attract mass public support.

Some protesters are also becoming more outspoken about criticizing King Mohammed but the demonstrations have failed to match the scale of those in several other Arab countries.

Much of the anger was directed at the Makhzen, Morocco's royal court. "Protest is a legal right, why is the Makhzen afraid?" crowds in Casablanca chanted. "Makhzen get out. Down with despotism."

A Reuters correspondent saw seven riot police attacking one bearded man in his 30s, repeatedly hitting his head and body, causing severe bleeding.

"We have been called here to preserve order because of this unauthorized protest," said a senior police officer on the scene who declined to give his name.

In Fes, three leading members of the city's protest movement were in "very critical condition," said demonstrator Fathallah al-Hamdani. Injured were also reported in Tangier and elsewhere.

No one was available at the Interior Ministry to comment on the protesters' reports.

Protesters wanted to camp in front of the parliament in Rabat, but authorities were anxious to avoid a repeat of the events in Cairo earlier this year when protesters occupying Tahrir Square eventually helped to topple the government.

In major cities, police armed with batons and shields moved people off the streets wherever they gathered. Protesters broke off into smaller groups, often with police chasing behind.

One protest leader in Rabat who had already been beaten a week ago suffered severe concussion on Sunday, said protester Jalal Makhfi.

Some human rights activists were beaten in front of police headquarters where they had tried to win the release of 13 members of the AMDH human rights group, said Khadija Riyadi, another member of the group.

Demonstrators said police beat dozens in Casablanca.

"We are standing together for dignity," one protest leaflet said. "We are against despotism, against corruption. We are for dignity, freedom, democracy and social justice."


Long seen as a relatively moderate and stable state, Morocco has experienced increasing unrest this year inspired by successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

In recent months, protesters seeking more democratic rights and economic benefits have held several nationwide protests in the country of 32 million, resulting in at least six deaths.

On Friday, a group of jobless graduates worked their way through a crowd to near the king after he led Friday prayers and chanted "Your majesty, we want jobs." State television cut off a live broadcast as the slogans began.

The outburst was considered a daring breach of protocol in a country where the king's portrait adorns many shops and public spaces and many treat him with reverence. The king is also the commander of the faithful, the leader of Moroccan Muslims who is said to descend from the Prophet Mohammed.

The royal family has ruled Morocco since the 17th century and survived both French colonial rule and independence.

Morocco has the lowest per capita GDP in the Maghreb region that also includes Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria. Many live in poverty and nearly half of the population is illiterate.

In response to the public protests, the king announced in March that he would amend the constitution to allow more democratic rights. A commission is due to announce a draft constitution next month

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Berber Odes : Poetry from Morocco's High Atlas Mountains

Here is a piece about a recently published compilation of Moroccan Berber poetry in translation. The article is geared towards travelers (aka tourists), but good books are for everyone.

Book Review: Berber Odes

by Heather Carreiro.

Part of Eland’s Poetry of Place collection,Berber Odes is a compilation of poetry in translation edited by Michael Peyron, visiting professor at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco.

From my year spent studying abroad at Al Akhwayn in 2003-2004, I still have vivid memories of professor Peyron’s 8:00 a.m. course, History and Culture of the Berbers. Since no textbooks were available, we used a heavy, photocopied reader that he’d compiled over the years. It was full of academic essays, poetry, proverbs, snippets on Berber dialects, black and white photos and historical accounts.

During class, Peyron would often deviate from the day’s lecture to give a quick pronunciation lesson, share the tale of a Berber saint or expound on a proverb. His excitement made clear that he loved learning about the Berber people and sharing their culture with others.

Berber Odes is the product of almost 20 years of Peyron’s work in Berber poetic genres. Morocco’s Berber population is spread throughout the country, with Tarifit-speaking Berbers in the northern Rif Mountains, Tamazight-speaking Berbers in the Middle Atlas and Tashelhit-speaking Berbers in the Souss region in southwest Morocco. While the book focuses on poetry from the Middle Atlas, Peyron’s primary area of research, it also includes a short selection of poetry from the Rif and a substantial selection of poetry from the Souss.

The original poems were either collected via audio recording by Peyron, accessed in the Berber archives stored in Aix-en-Province, collected and shared by Peyron’s colleagues and students or derived from other historical records.

The book is a thin, light, 4” by 6” volume that can easily fit into a purse, backpack or a coat pocket. Poems are organized by region, and the back of the book includes a bibliography for further reading and an index of the poems listed by both title and first line. Each poem is given in English translation, in verse form, and is followed by a paragraph of detailed contextual information from the editor.

The collection ranges from humorous ballads to didactic religious instructions and appeals to saints, although many of the poems focus on the themes of war and bravery. The breadth of these traditional odes and the context given for each one offers unique insight into Berber history and culture. As these poems have never been translated into English before, Berber Odes is an invaluable resource for scholars and travelers who wish to learn more about Morocco’s indigenous people.

The following excerpt demonstrates the tension felt among the Berbers, who traditionally have lived in Morocco’s highland areas, regarding urbanization, moral decline and trusting outsiders.

Excerpt from “Hospitality Betrayed” (pages 84-85)

To fresh matters must I now refer, indeed there’s much to say.
Our first night I spent passing as a guest in a friend’s house.
Sufficient was the meal, even though today, come what may,
Some men are reluctant to open their door to visitors.
It takes but little patience to spend the evening together,
Enough time for intentions, worthy and unworthy, to show.
Say what I must, these times are at once good and bad.
As to what fate holds in store, how should we know?
We lack nothing material, yet our minds are in turmoil! [...]

In peace do I wish to live, trusting in fellow Berbers,
Whereas in big cities, with mixed population, crime is rife,
Women, newborn babies, all are victims of misfortune!
For a handful of coins a man will slay his neighbor!
In these times, e’en the highlands are dangerous [...]
No safety in sleeping near a nomads’ encampment!
With thy name do I comment, O Lord, thou and
Thy eternal dwelling-place!

I would definitely recommend that anyone interested in Moroccan culture pick up a copy of Berber Odes. The contextual explanations are written with a general audience in mind; you don’t need to be a poet or a scholar to appreciate the wealth of cultural knowledge that can be gleaned from reading these odes and ballads.

What I like most about the book is its small size and easy navigability. Most of the poems are shorter pieces, and you don’t need a solid half an hour to digest one of them. Instead, you can pull it out of your pocket or backpack while waiting for a grand taxi, sitting at a cafe or taking a short break while hiking in the Middle Atlas and read one or two poems.

The book is easily portable and could make for an excellent discussion starter with English-speaking Moroccans you meet during your travels. The verses and information packed into its 125 pages represents decades of the editor, Michael Peyron’s, work among the Berber people, and the book contains information and cultural insight that you won’t be able to find published anywhere else.

If you plan on visiting Morocco or know someone else who is, Berber Odes would make an ideal travel companion. Reading it made me anxious to get back to the mountains of Morocco myself.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Allegations Upend Lives of Two Moroccan Muslims in the US Army

Here is an article from the New York Times about Moroccan immigrants in the US army facing discrimination and punishment due to their Islamic religious background.

Allegations Upend Lives of 2 Muslims in Army

Published: May 13, 2011

Two years ago, Khalid Lyaacoubi and Yassine Bahammou, immigrants from Morocco, enlisted in the Army National Guard, recruited for a program that promised higher rank, bonuses and quick citizenship to Arabic speakers who could help fill the military’s need for interpreters.

Shortly before Christmas 2009, they graduated from boot camp, proud just to have made it. But as they prepared to leave Fort Jackson, S.C., they were instead questioned by military investigators who suspected them and three other Moroccan immigrants of plotting to poison fellow soldiers.

For the next 45 days, they were placed under a form of barracks arrest, prevented from calling their families without sergeants present, forbidden to speak Arabic to each other and required to have escorts to the mess hall and the bathroom. No charges were filed, but their laptops, cellphones and passports were confiscated.

Only after the intervention of a Muslim chaplain were they finally allowed to go back to their homes. Last May, the Army concluded that the allegations against them — initially raised by a relative of a soldier — were unfounded. But the Federal Bureau of Investigation has kept its inquiry open, officials say. As a result, the men have been unable to receive security clearances, become citizens, deploy to Iraq, obtain concealed weapons permits or get government jobs, the soldiers say.

“Am I one of them, a soldier?” Specialist Lyaacoubi, 34, asked in an interview. “Or am I like one of those prisoners in Iraq?”

The handling of the two soldiers’ cases underscores the conflicted nature of the military’s relationship with its Muslim troops since the Fort Hood shootings in November 2009. A Muslim soldier, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, is accused of killing 13 people there.

Specialists Lyaacoubi and Bahammou were recruited into a program intended to put Arabic-, Dari- and Pashto-speaking immigrants in uniform to help frontline commanders operate in Afghanistan and Iraq. In a promotional video from 2008, an Army officer said the program — known as 09 Lima, after the Army designation for interpreter jobs — “saves both American and local lives.”

Having Muslims in uniform also helped the military combat the view propagated by Al Qaeda — but also held by many Muslims — that the United States was at war with Islam. Perhaps for that reason, the Army chief of staff at the time, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., strongly defended the need for Muslim troops and warned about harassment of them after Major Hasan was arrested.

Despite the general’s pleas, however, Specialists Lyaacoubi and Bahammou say they were swept into a tide of suspicion after the Fort Hood shootings, which occurred midway through their Fort Jackson training.

Treated with dignity during the first half of their training, they say other soldiers ransacked their bunk room and called them “garbage” soon after the shootings. When he was initially detained at Fort Jackson in 2009, Specialist Lyaacoubi said an interrogator told him: “We are at war with Islam. And you are Muslim.”

Mikey Weinstein, president and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit group representing the two soldiers, said his group had seen a steady increase in Muslim clients who claimed they had been discriminated against since Fort Hood. He called the Army’s Fort Jackson investigation “draconian and clearly unconstitutional.”

In recent days, the Army has begun acknowledging problems with the way it handled the soldiers at Fort Jackson. An internal review that has not been made public found that they were treated in an “overly restrictive” way because they were not allowed to contact anyone for weeks. But the review did not find evidence of racism or harassment, Maj. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza, the Army’s chief spokesman, said in a letter.

General Lanza defended the Army investigation, even though it came up empty. “To not do so — had these alleged threats turned out to be credible, and in light of the Fort Hood shooting incident that took place mere weeks before these allegations — would have been an unconscionable dereliction of duty and leadership on our part,” he wrote.

But the Army has been unable to explain why the F.B.I. continues to investigate the men. The F.B.I. declined to comment because the case is continuing.

pecialists Lyaacoubi and Bahammou say the F.B.I. got in touch with them after they started going public with their stories recently. Both say that an agent said their cases could be closed if they passed polygraph tests.

“I will take 10, 20 or 30, if it will help,” said Specialist Lyaacoubi, who has taken the test.

Both men remain part of a National Guard unit in Washington, D.C. But they have not been allowed to train with their company since the investigation began.

In what they consider another sign of government harassment, both men say they have been searched repeatedly after routine traffic stops. Specialist Bahammou, 27, said he was handcuffed by the Washington police for more than 30 minutes while they searched his car recently. “I never had a ticket before,” he said.

The other three Moroccan immigrants investigated at Fort Jackson were also cleared by the Army, records show. One has returned to Morocco, Specialist Lyaacoubi said, while the other two have declined to speak publicly about the case.

Though graduates of the 09 Lima program are eligible for expedited citizenship, Specialists Lyaacoubi and Bahammou say that is not the reason they enlisted. Both won green cards in lotteries in Morocco, allowing them to live and work legally in the United States and which must be renewed after 10 years.

Specialist Lyaacoubi immigrated in 2004; Specialist Bahammou, who comes from Casablanca, arrived in 2007.

The men say they enlisted mainly for economic reasons. Specialist Lyaacoubi, from Rabat, the Moroccan capital, had been laid off from a hotel job when a recruiter told him about the 09 Lima program. He in turn persuaded Specialist Bahammou, who hoped military experience would help him get work in law enforcement.

Since returning to their homes in the Washington area last year, the men say they have had trouble finding permanent jobs. Specialist Bahammou said he had applied for work as a security guard but could not get a concealed-weapon permit because of the F.B.I. investigation. Specialist Lyaacoubi said a good job offer was recently rescinded when the employer, a government contractor, learned he was not a citizen. His naturalization, which he said had been approved, is halted for now because of the investigation.

Both men said they would deploy to Iraq if given the opportunity.

“I lived in my country for 27 years and I did great,” Specialist Lyaacoubi said. “But why should I leave America? I want to live here, I want to get married here. I want to die here.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Ghosts of the Sahara: Photo Exhibition in NYC on the Exiled People of the Western Sahara

Here is an piece from The New Yorker on a exhibition of photos by Andrew McConnell showing Sahrawi refugees and discussing their forgotten (or ignored) plight. It is currently showing in New York City. Click on either of the links highlighted above to see the photos.
May 10, 2011
Living Ghosts: In Exile with the Sahrawi Bedouins
Posted by Caroline Hirsch

On a recent visit to the Half King gallery, I discovered Andrew McConnell’s thoughtful and poignant project on the Sahrawi Bedouins—now into their thirty-fifth year of exile from their native Western Sahara.

McConnell says: “In pursuing the Sahrawis’ story, what struck me more than anything else was how forgotten these people are. How is it possible, in the twenty-first century, for tens of thousands of men, women, and children to languish in refugee camps for three and a half decades—unknown? How can continuous U.N. resolutions and international laws be ignored and abused without censure? And how can human-rights abuses proceed unchallenged?”

McConnell decided to stage his portraits in the darkness: “I wanted to give a sense that this is one long night for the Sahrawis—lasting thirty-five years. My showing very little of the land emphasizes that the Sahrawis are landless. By lighting them simply and in darkness, I am trying to say, ‘Look! These people are here!’ Their statements are a grim rebuttal to international efforts in Western Sahara; the majority want a return to war. Finally, I wanted the viewer to see what I had seen: a people utterly forgotten, abandoned, hidden from the world’s consciousness—a people living as ghosts.”

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Alarming Hike in Unmarried Mothers in Morocco

Here is an article from CNN about the 27,200 unmarried Moroccan women who became mothers in 2009. There are a lot of steps that should be taken before mere "acceptance" of unwed mothers such as improving youth employment and financially assisting youth to get married.Increasing education opportunities for females. Also, basic sex education and improved access to birth control. Holding Moroccan males responsible for their inappropriate sexual behavior is a great idea too - these women didn't get pregnant all by themselves.
Study reveals alarming hike in unmarried mothers in Morocco
By Martin Jay, for CNN
May 3, 2011 -- Updated 1945 GMT (0345 HKT)

* A recent study says number of unwed mothers in Morocco rose dramatically from 2008
to 2009
* Study shows 60% of unwed mothers are younger than 26 and a third younger than 20
* Strong prejudice still remains against unwed mothers from most groups of society

A recent study published by a Casablanca support group for single mothers says the number of Morocco's unmarried mothers in 2009 is at least double those in 2008 -- 27,200 compared with 11,016 the year before, according to the Institution Nationale de Solidarite Avec Les Femmes en Distresse.

As in most Muslim countries, it is considered an intolerable shame on a family in Morocco if a daughter falls pregnant outside marriage. In many cases, families totally reject a daughter who becomes pregnant before marriage.

Morocco's unmarried mothers are mostly young, said Houda El Bourahi, the institute's director. The study shows 60% are younger than 26 and a third younger than 20, she said.

According to the 350-page report, the mothers are often in "vulnerable" professions, such as house servants, and the majority have a low level of schooling. Often, the women believe that their sexual partners will marry them, and so agree to their demands, according to the study.

Despite Morocco being modern in so many respects, strong prejudice still remains against unwed mothers from most groups of society.

"It's time to put an end to prejudices held against these women though who are considered by (Moroccan) society as prostitutes," El Bourahi said. "These women are rejected by their families and by society and are not protected by the law."

Since the end of last year, 7,000 women in Casablanca alone had been assisted at the organization's Center of Listening on the outskirts of the city, the commercial capital of Morocco with a population of almost 4 million. Furthermore, 2,000 children have been accepted legally by the civil state and 540 have been recognized by their fathers.

The women's rights agenda has accelerated dramatically in recent years in Morocco largely following an initiative by King Mohammed VI to give women more equality, both at home and in the workplace. A new law adopted in 2004 gave women more rights as wives, for example.

Still, few men accept unmarried mothers and their offspring despite less of a stigma these days toward women who take up jobs and consider virginity to be an outdated virtue. While many men consider single mothers to be prostitutes, sex workers reportedly represent a tiny percentage of Morocco's unmarried mothers.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Stealing Morocco's Cherished Cedar Wood

Here is an article from the AFP about illegal cutting of cedar trees in Morocco's Middle Atlas region.

'Cedar mafia' threatens Morocco's cherished wood

By Omar Brousky (AFP) – 4 days ago

AJDIR , Morocco — Revered as the "king of the forest" in Morocco, the native cedar tree is under increasing threat from illegal logging -- a crime which also threatens the country's main water reserve.

In the Ajdir forest, in the heart of the Middle Atlas mountain range, these imposing trees once covered every slope. Now their numbers are in rapid decline, to the bitter dismay of the local Berber-speaking population.

"Each year thousands of trees - some of them several centuries old - are illegally felled as many forest wardens turn a blind eye," human rights activist, Aziz Akkaoui, told AFP.

A favourite of cabinetmakers, cedar is a symbol of power and opulence in Morocco's stately homes and its natural oils have been known to act as an insect repellent.

Now the conifer, which covers about 134,000 hectares (330,000 acres) of the North African country, is at risk of disappearing.

Just a few metres from a forest warden's hut, by a tree-lined lake, lies the stump of a freshly-felled cedar.

"This tree was felled with a saw whose noise the forest wardens could not help but hear," said Akkaoui, from the Moroccan Association for Human Rights. "There are the poachers who cut the cedar illegally; the carpenters who buy the wood; there are some corrupt Water and Forestry agents and some corrupt justice ministry officials," he said.

"So you can talk about a cedar mafia, an organised mafia."

Within the forest, some inhabitants admit that they themselves have cut down cedars illegally in order to survive in this poor mountainous area.

A villager named Ahmed said: "We don't have much choice. There's nothing here."

"But to cut down a tree you have to give bribes to the warden -- between 2,000 and 3,000 dirhams (190-280 euros/270-400 dollars). It depends."

"Each time a group of locals want to go cut down a tree they give a forest warden a fee," he added.

Each cedar, which take up to 30 years to reach maturity, can earn illegal loggers up to 800 euros. If lawfully traded, villagers can benefit from a sum three times that.

Every year communities hold wood auctions which bring in around one million euros. Furious locals say they no longer profit from the trade, however.

"Look around you, there's nothing," said Ahmed. "Here we are dirt poor. Why don't we benefit from the revenues of our village after the legal sales of the cedars?"

"There's no work, no schools, no hospitals. We want jobs, facilities, projects to help us and improve our lives.

Those responsible for managing the area's water and forest programmes deny the villagers' claims.

"When someone is caught, he's obviously going to accuse a forest warden. But there's no proof to say that he gave a warden money," said Mohamed Chedid, from the Centre for Development and Protection of Forest Resources.

Observers have warned for many years about the effect of the illegal trade in cedars, which hold water and reduce erosion in an area regarded as Morocco's main water reserve.

"Uncontrolled logging leads to erosion and desertification, which threatens the ecological balance of the region," said academic Abdeslam Ouhejjou.

"The Middle Atlas forests are Morocco's main water reserve and any disruption there has repercussions for the rest of the country," he warned.

Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved.