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House of Life: Growing Trees to Mend Old Wounds

The High Atlas Foundation manifests inter-religious partnerships as it constructs nurseries and trains communities in organic agriculture.

Photo of Yossef Ben-Meir

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*Please Upload User Experience Map (as attachment) and any additional insights gathered from Beneficiary Feedback in this field

We received feedback from two sources: community and government. Communities agree to purchase the trees provided from the nurseries for $0.20 (their value ranges from $1.50 - $2.00) to generate revenue to replant the nurseries. Two provincial public administrations (of Azilal and Ouarzazate) have conducted technical assessments of the terrains adjacent to one Jewish cemetery in each of the jurisdictions and have granted project commencement (alongside the Jewish committees).

Why does the target community define this problem as urgent and/or a priority? How is the idea leveraging and empowering community assets to help create an environment for success? (1000 characters)

Morocco suffers from extreme drought, chronic unemployment, and elevating prices of basic foodstuffs. The situation is alarming, with systemic rural poverty prompting ongoing public demonstrations in the country. Further, circumstances are problematic due to the fact that approximately three out of the four million Moroccans currently living in poverty are in rural areas. According to Morocco’s Ministry of Agriculture, 70% of agricultural land generates only 10-15% revenue due to cultivating barley and corn. These conditions place extreme demand on more lucrative fruit trees, yet rural communities lack the land to spare to grow tree nurseries. The in-kind contribution of land by the Moroccan Jewish community for nurseries enables farmers to maintain food production while building conditions for economic transformation. Moroccan communities granting their land and labor to this project are vital inputs that can be leveraged to attract the needed investment for nursery infrastructure.

How does the idea fit within the larger ecosystem that surrounds it? Urgent needs are usually a symptom of a larger issue that rests within multiple interrelated symptoms - share what you know about the context surrounding the problem you are aiming to solve. (500 characters)

While the MENA region struggles to protect minority religious groups, Morocco provides an exceptional context that welcomes intercultural projects leading to development. Second, barriers to growth in subsistence settings is a widespread need of irrigation infrastructure, fruit seeds, technical and coop-building, and value-chains. Lastly, marginalized farmers--many of whom are illiterate--are rarely able to access government support, preventing them from generating business and escaping poverty.

How does the idea affect or change the fundamental nature of the larger ecosystem that surrounds it (as described above) in a new and/or far-reaching way? (500 characters)

In addition to planting all organic fruit trees, HAF and communities prioritize endemic seeds. This creates enormous environmental and economic opportunities to expand organic certification of agricultural product and monitor trees for carbon credit offsets. The project’s Muslim-Jewish agricultural partnership is the first of its kind in Morocco. These relations set the groundwork for future interreligious cooperation for development in the country, and provide a replicable framework for MENA.

What will be different within the target community as a result of implementing the idea? What is the scope and scale of that difference? How long will it take to see that difference and how will it be sustained beyond BridgeBuilder support? (500 characters)

The High Commission of Waters and Forests has 700 nurseries of forestry trees. The Moroccan Jewish community has 600 parcels of land. At scale, this project can generate tens of millions of fruit trees annually (it is projected that 1 billion trees are needed to transition from subsistence farming). This Interfaith initiative can therefore directly contribute to ending rural poverty. With BridgeBuilder, we can plant 5 million fruit seeds in 15 months, to be sustained by 50,000 farming families.

How has the idea evolved or responded to your user research during the Beneficiary Feedback Phase and any further insights provided if you participated in the Expert Feedback Phase? (1000 characters)

We appreciated all of the feedback and were happy to clarify our project’s aim, which is to support Morocco’s desire to advance multicultural unity and development. The political realities--stressed by poverty, extremisms, and consequent diverging forces--could mean that the opportunity to achieve interfaith partnership may become less achievable over time. Without third-party assistance, intercultural dialogue is rarely catalyzed. The comments shared during the Feedback Phase brought even greater appreciation for our position--having the trust of the Moroccan government and Muslim and Jewish communities, where we work together for the people’s development. Further, the economic benefits from certifying and selling organic fruit and carbon credits make this initiative into a cutting edge model of sustainable agriculture. These certifications require significant field work and national and international partnerships, and it is via the intercultural component that has helped foster them.

What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years? (You can attach a timeline or GANTT chart in place of a written plan, if desired.) (1000 characters)

Phase 1 (8 mos.)
-Facilitate local meetings and review action plans
-Build skills in nursery maintenance
-Conduct management and technical training with community members
-Build agricultural terraces and irrigation systems
-Plant 5 million organic fruit seeds in 8 nurseries
-Develop business plans for organic product

Phase 2 (12 mos.)
-Transplant mature trees to farmers’ fields and schools
-Organize environmental education and multicultural activities
-Replant in nurseries where seeds did not grow
-Gather data to support organic and carbon credit certifications and evaluation
-Develop partnerships for expansion and organize global events

Phase 3 (27 mos.)
-Transplant saplings to fields and schools
-Replant 5 million seeds
-Secure organic certification and sell carbon credits
-Continue capacity-building in management and technical areas
-Process and export certified organic product
-Reinvest proceeds in projects identified by communities
-Evaluation

Describe the individual or team that will implement this idea (if a partnership, please explain breakdown of roles and responsibilities for each entity). (Feel free to share an organizational chart or visual description of your team). (500 characters)

Partnerships include:
1) Moroccan Jewish Community - lends land for permanent use
2) High Commission of Waters and Forests and Ministry of Agriculture - provide surveys and nursery certifications
3) A research center and 3 universities - assist with community planning and evaluation
4) Ministry of Education - plants trees at schools
5) ECOCERT - organic-certifies cultivation
6) South Pole - for certifying carbon credits
7) Essaouira mayor’s office - for multicultural collaboration

What aspects of the idea would potential BridgeBuilder funds primarily support? (500 characters)

Funds would support:
1) Water access and installing irrigation systems
2) Soil and terrace preparations
3) Purchasing and planting seeds
4) Experiential training technical, management, maintaining the four nurseries, grafting
5) Securing organic certification and carbon offset monitoring
6) Domestic/international awareness raising and partnership-building events for Moroccan multiculturalism and human development; transportation of people and materials

In preparation for our Expert Feedback Phase: What are three unanswered questions or challenges that you could use support on in your project? These questions will be answered directly by experts matched specifically to your idea and needs.

Interfaith collaboration in the MENA region, even in conducive contexts, is challenging in regards to coordination and achieving productive outcomes. In order to gain knowledge from cases that can be informative to our situation in Morocco, we inquire into the existence and experiences of similarly dedicated networks of interfaith partnerships in the MENA. How can we integrate ourselves into their networks?

We observe that these fruit trees, having been grown nearby the sacred burial sites of the Hebrew saints, who are revered by both Jewish and Muslim people, are especially valued. How can the intercultural component and this unique dimension impact the branding of the trees and the fruit they yield?

Even though HAF has experience in monitoring and registering carbon credits towards their certification, as well as secured the organic certification of walnuts and almonds, these processes remain challenging on technical and commercial levels. How can BridgeBuilder assist us in achieving the project’s further reaching components in order to fulfill the revenue and sustainability potential that we know exist?

Final Updates (*Please do not complete until we reach the Improve Phase*): How has the idea evolved or responded to your user research during the Beneficiary Feedback Phase and any further insights provided if you participated in the Expert Feedback Phase? (1000 characters)

These Phases highlighted important aspects of the project. First, even as Morocco provides an enabling context for interfaith action, the opportunity still must be seized and worked upon. Third-party facilitation and persistence among other forms of assistance are vital for success. Second, we need to explore international networks with whom we can gain valuable lessons as well as market opportunities toward organic product purchases. Third, we must pursue avenues to involve not only Jewish and Muslim communities but also Christian ones in this interreligious endeavor for development. The project recently has gained the attention of Sheikh Sidi Jamal and his devoted followers who are members of local communities across the nation. They expressed their support in the distributing trees grown at the sites of Hebrew saints. Finally, the Phases highlighted areas of helpful partnership including support of the zero waste component such as converting biomass waste into clean energy options.

During this Improve Phase, please use the space below to add any additional information to your proposal.

There was a thoughtful comment posted on HAF’s project as to how we can include religious communities, in addition to Muslim and Jewish. We would like to share information about HAF’s effort to restore the Franciscan Church in Essaouira, in order to both preserve Moroccan culture and at the same time create a new space for local civil society organizations to plan and organize to advance their human development missions. In the Moroccan context: cultural activities are to be advanced simultaneously and in tandem with human development. The kingdom’s position in regard to the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations embodies the natural chemistry of actions that are both multicultural and developmental, to improve cooperation among nations. King Mohammed VI explained in 2008, “That vision consists in making sure culture serves as a driving force for development as well as a bridge for dialogue.” It is the community and multicultural dialogue that leads to development becoming a driving force, uplifting the unfolding cultural relationships.

In the Moroccan coastal city of Essaouria, inclusive community meetings—and the successful restoration in 2013 of the cemeteries of the three faiths and youth education—catalyzed new efforts to bring back the three-hundred-year-old Franciscan church. The local idea is that the rebuilt church, without a current large local worship community, could be restored as part of a UNESCO World Heritage site in accordance with the Moroccan cultural preservation model. At the same time, the church could provide much needed space for local civil society workshops and display area for their crafts and innovations. The project directly links cultural preservation and advancing human development programs that will continue after reconstruction ends. By restoring the church and then it returning to civil organizations in support of their mission and work, Morocco presents an exceptional opportunity in the Middle East and North Africa, to preserve a cultural heritage site and better meet the development needs of people today.

The proposed church restoration project for culture and civil society was given new organizational impetus as a result of HAF’s 2013 project in Essaouira to preserve the cemeteries of the three religions. The program was funded by the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation and Essaouira Mogador. It integrated over 400 individual students and schoolchildren into educational and practical activities around cultural knowledge preserved by the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim cemeteries, and worked with over 120 members of local civil society. These local partners to “preserve the illustrious past of Essaouira for future generations,” as Brian Shukan, the U.S. Consul General, described them at the close of project, brought new consideration to restore—for civil society and public benefit—the city’s churches, mosques, zawiyas, synagogues, and religious schools.

We strongly agree with the premise of the comment posted on HAF’s Bridge project that interreligious initiatives must be genuinely and broadly inclusive. It would even seem antithetical to the principles of interfaith actions if it were to remain exclusive to just few of the different faith groups, or even to denominations within the same faith, as we sometimes observe in cases around the world. HAF presented the above, which is further elaborated on in an attachment here, to show that we embrace the commenter’s outlook of widest as possible inclusivity. And further, we take practical steps toward achieving the opportunities we cultivate and see regarding interfaith unity, with all groups in all places in the Kingdom of Morocco, and whenever possible, beyond.

Note that you may also edit any of your previous answers within the proposal. Here is a great place to note any big final changes or iterations you have made to your proposal below:

Upon further consideration on the issue of replicability of this project, which was elaborated upon by comments, we have been considering the following in recent months. As HAF’s evidence for the legitimacy of Morocco’s development approach is largely limited to our own engagement with communities, further research is imperative. For example, assessing outside efforts’ success or failure in human development would contribute to further understanding of the factors that either facilitate or hinder efficient implementation. We note Morocco’s potential to act as a positive model for fostering interfaith dialogue. For instance, the visit by Israelis and Palestinians to HAF nurseries near Jewish cemeteries in recent years aimed to inspire individuals to implement these projects in their own local communities. The antecedent conditions in Morocco, that do not necessarily exist elsewhere, may be fundamental towards its ability to implement projects efficiently. However, it is necessary to further test and analyze what factors cultivate or inhibit efficient implementation of human development integrated with interfaith. Then, appropriate environments for community growth can be created in different cultural contexts.

Reflecting upon Moroccan Muslim-Jewish relationships and history, which a comment touched upon, the following may be a relevant consideration. The Jewish experience in Morocco, with all of its cycles and periods, can be characterized as quite remarkable in its longevity and quality. There are impressive scholars who have dedicated themselves to understanding specifically and thematically what has transpired in Morocco in regards to Jewish life, thought, cultural evolution, practice, trials, alienation, and major stretches of peaceful pluralism. We have not given this level of consideration to the social developments that constitute the Moroccan Jewish-Muslim narrative. However, one can fairly state that their bounded experience in Morocco has been incredibly rich, complex, nonlinear, hopeful, painful, continuous, and ongoing to this very moment. Therefore, the initiative to preserve and even deepen this living and evolving social artifact is exceptionally worthy, and an action fully consistent with the Moroccan national identity and Constitution.

Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

Morocco’s Ministry of Agriculture estimated one billion trees are needed to break the poverty cycle affecting farming families as they currently struggle to transition to more lucrative cash crops and to grow nurseries.


Nurseries must be created for Morocco to generate the trees required to lift its inhabitants out of poverty. However, farming families are concerned about risk as they make the transition from barley and corn--even as it keeps them in poverty--to more lucrative cash crops. The loan of land enables farmers to overcome these concerns, since they will not lose the use of their arable land for the two-year period necessary for trees to mature from seeds.


The contribution of land for nurseries is essential to overcome rural poverty. The Jewish community of Morocco, with approximately the same number of land plots (500-600) as the High Commission of Waters and Forests, could become a vital large-scale contributor of land for nurseries throughout the country. Morocco may be the only place in Africa and the Middle East where Muslim and Jewish collaboration through this creative use of resources may take place.


Thus, HAF facilitates the lending of vacant land adjoining historic Jewish burial sites in order to establish nurseries. The trees are distributed to and grown by neighboring Muslim farming families. This act both meets a development priority and is a notable act of interfaith.


We piloted the tree nursery phase, which resulted in the cultivation of 120,000 almond, fig, pomegranate and lemon trees. The experience helped HAF be granted seven plots of land nearby Jewish cemeteries; we can now strive for growing organic nurseries on a national scale.


At scale, tens of millions of seeds will be planted every year and a better life afforded to marginalized communities. Moreover, we can advance on the later agricultural phases, including certifying organic the product for greater revenue for farmers, and building their cooperatives.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

This project’s beneficiaries are farming families who are impacted by systemic rural poverty, women, youth, and schools across Morocco. Nursery projects aim to improve the livelihood of villagers via economic growth by introducing cash crops to their localized food systems. Once income generation begins 4-6 years after planting the trees, money allocation then goes to families to enhance standards of living, and will also be dedicated to implementing development projects identified by local people. Development projects that will be funded by fruit tree agriculture vary from village to village, depending on communities’ needs. For example, projects include buying tree seeds for planting, supporting women’s cooperatives, or helping assist schools by building clean drinking water systems and bathrooms. Results can be momentous, including increased attendance for girls whose families often choose between sending them to school or to, instead, fetch drinking water many kilometers away.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

The project is unique by incorporating interfaith collaboration in the human development of the nation as a whole. The initiative could inspire the world since it combines Muslim-Jewish united action with local-to-international and private-public partnerships. It is agricultural, environmental, and multicultural; it empowers women, youth, and marginalized families; advances democratic procedures, civil society and businesses; increases domestic and foreign trade and jobs; addresses root causes of rural poverty; develops highly employable and nationally imperative skills; and furthers food security, carbon balance, and Morocco’s goals. In addition, this initiative uses HAF’s participatory planning approach that is driven by community beneficiaries in every step of the development process. HAF has been refining methodologies for successful project implementation since its inception in 2000, and has had Consultative Status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council since 2011.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Pilot: I have started to implement the idea as a whole with a first set of real users.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

The High Atlas Foundation (HAF) is a U.S. 501c3 nonprofit and Moroccan national civil association that works to establish livelihood advancement projects identified and managed by local communities in partnership with the public, private, and civil sectors.
http://www.highatlasfoundation.org/

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.
  • Other

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

Yossef Ben-Meir, founder of HAF, was a Peace Corps Morocco volunteer. He learned that farming families need new land to establish nurseries for fruit trees--one measure to end systemic rural poverty--to prevent loss of their current agricultural production. Taking this into consideration, Ben-Meir concluded that the Jewish community of Morocco, which has over 600 rural burial sites, could be a potential invaluable partner in this enterprise by providing land in-kind for community tree nurseries.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

This project bridges peace, prosperity, and planet. It establishes community nurseries for a predominantly Muslim society on land lent by the Moroccan Jewish people, adding an element of unity and peaceful relationships in a region burdened by catastrophic divisiveness. The Moroccan Jewish community plays a vital role in promoting prosperity by loaning land adjoining Jewish burial sites in order to establish organic tree and medicinal plant nurseries for the benefit of neighboring Muslim farming communities. The lending of land by sacred religious sites also helps ensure continued respect for these areas, regardless of whether or not Moroccan Jewish people are physically present there. Additionally, the project is an innovative agricultural initiative that advances carbon balance and has broad implications that acutely resonate with current world events: set in the specific context of Moroccan human development needs, multiculturalism, and environmental strengthening.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

HAF establishes partnerships that seek people’s prosperity and participation. Partners include: 1) Moroccan Jewish communities, which lend land for ten years to grow community fruit tree and medicinal plant nurseries; 2) the Mimouna Association, which promotes domestic and international multicultural awareness, events, and education; 3) the Idraren Cooperative, which processes raw organic nut product for the export market; 4) Lucky’s Farmers Market (USA), which provides a Letter of Intent to purchase Moroccan organic agricultural product; and 5) the provinces in which we work, which support inclusive planning, public-private partnership, and technical assistance. Since implementing the pilot for this project in 2012 in Al Haouz, HAF planted 120,000 fruit seeds, which have reached maturity and are now maintained by about 1,000 farmers and 130 schools. In 2016, the first trees were handed to local children and farmers by the Governor and the U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, Dwight Bush, Sr.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

Morocco in itself is an ideal location for this project as preserving cultural locations and creating decentralized development are encouraged in its Constitution. The project requires collaboration between government agencies, local associations, Jewish communities, and Muslim families—all of whom already work closely with HAF. Therefore, HAF will facilitate dialogue and enable all parties to work together, leading to partnership and sustainable change that are based on social diversity.

Geographic Focus

The geographic focus is lands lent by Jewish communities in southern rural Morocco.

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

In order to implement this project of growing 1.3 million fruit trees and medicinal plants, and to bring benefit to our targeted beneficiaries, a 36-month duration—which includes 3 planting seasons—is required. At that conclusion of this timeline, the saplings and plants will have been distributed and planted by the beneficiaries, who will continue to maintain them and be the sole recipients of the generated income.

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No
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Attachments (8)

Moroccan Approach essay.Yossef Ben-Meir.MQ 2018.pdf

Morocco’s approach to projects that preserve its multicultural identity integrates sustainable development. The strategy is to identify ways to not only preserve culturally significant locations, but to also advance livelihoods, health, and education. The restoration of the Jewish cemeteries and growing adjacent to them fruit tree nurseries provide a vivid example of this model. The essay provides recommendations to improve the application of Morocco’s cultural-development integration.

26 comments

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Photo of Christina Schwanke
Team

Yossef Ben-Meir 
Thank you for sharing this project! I learned so much reading it. Please forgive my ignorance but I had no idea that there was anywhere in the Middle East that Jewish and Muslims as a whole got along. Perhaps I missed it but why is there peace and opportunity between them in Morocco? Is it due to necessity or specialized projects? I also was unaware that you could produce profit from trees in such a short time span. More of a personal curiosity you mentioned drought....which trees do you believe are the most drought tolerant? I apologize for all the questions, this is such a fascinating project!

Best,
Christina Schwanke

Photo of Yossef Ben-Meir
Team

Dear Christina,

It is such a good question: Why does Morocco present this opportunity? There are of course incredibly thoughtful people who dedicate their lives to illuminating answers to this. I do not have a definitive answer that I can provide. I can say that there are explanations found through research methods and study within the context of the social sciences, and there are also mystical or religious-based explanations. Morocco is a crossroads of civilizations, and its people and kings through centuries overall accepted this dynamism as part of the social identity. For example, at one point in centuries past, it was a global learning and intellectual center of the Jewish people, much like Iraq was. Interestingly and related to this project, highly prominent Muslim and Jewish religious leaders account for Morocco's special experience as it relates to unity, diversity and overall peace due to the many hundreds of burials of saints, elevating the land. Perhaps this relates to why this project is highly appreciated among the Moroccan demographic groups. Having said all this, I do not feel that there is a guarantee that the best of was, will determine the future. Poverty is deep and widespread, and promising national initiatives for development remain unfulfilling for the great majority of people.

Morocco is fortunate to have 13 fruit tree varieties that grow organically, and there are many endemic seed types (for example, there are 14 different fig types in Morocco - and unfortunately most all are threatened - which we are working to bring back). In general, focusing on organic and endemic varieties means that they are adaptive to their environment. Furthermore, the trees that we grow in nurseries are shared with farming families and schools in the immediate province or neighboring ones. This also enhances their acclimation to the environments to where they are transplanted from the nurseries. Finally, when seeds in nurseries and trees in farmers' fields don't survive, we replant in those very spots the following season. Survival rates can vary in regions and seasons, but on average we are now slightly below 80 percent. Monitoring, evaluation, and adaptive management - utilizing local and external expertise - are vital. Our monitoring the trees now for carbon credit offsets - requiring registries, mapping, and timely surveillance - has greatly enhanced our data gathering and analytical system.

I wish you the best, Christina.

Yossef

Photo of Christina Schwanke
Team

Yossef Ben-Meir 

Thank you for your response. I am completely fascinated by the social and religious explanations for peace. Given this new insight I will be digging deeper. Thank you for sharing your insights. This is definitely a sensitive subject and many people are deeply affected.

The tree question is more out of curiosity....I live in drought burdened Nevada and on a personal level am always trying how to figure out the best ways to manage my property. That being said 80% survival rate is wonderful. Your project speaks to me on so many levels. Can I connect with you on Linkedin or Facebook to follow your finding and progress?

Best,
Christina

Photo of Yossef Ben-Meir
Team

Hi Christina,

I would be happy to connect.
https://www.linkedin.com/in/yossef-ben-meir-21436713/
https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1476526258

There are mountain areas where we plant with communities that have the necessary water levels (though modest sized terraces) and have over 90% survival rates. With Saharan communities or ones in arid places, survival rates can be at 60% or so. Our average though is in the high 70s percentile. I spent a lot of years in New Mexico, so we share many of the same challenges and kinds of terrain.

Happy rest of summer,

Yossef

Photo of Christina Schwanke
Team

Hello Yossef Ben-Meir 

I sent you requests at both. We have a connection in common....the world can be a very small place. I look forward to following your project. Happy rest of summer to you as well!
Christina

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