At the same time, the illegal cross-border trade with Spain is also to blame for this lack of alternatives. The government in far-off Rabat sees little reason to bother introducing agricultural economics or other training programmes to help stimulate the rural economy – after all, the Rif takes care of itself.

Dead-end Rif mountains

And this brings us to the region's second problem. For a long time it has been an isolated area. Not only is it off the beaten track geographically; culturally and politically, it has never wanted to be part of Morocco either. This isolationist attitude has brought many disadvantages to the region, but it has also made it eminently suitable for another illegal activity that helps keep the region afloat.

Topographically, the inaccessible mountainous area is a dead end. Hemmed in between the Mediterranean to the north, the permanently closed border with Algeria to the east, the high mountain peaks of the Rif chain to the south and the Atlantic to the west, some places here are 70 kilometres from the nearest road. A glance at the Moroccan railway network is enough to make clear the central government's attitude to the region. The main railway route, carrying what are probably the finest trains on the African continent, runs along the Atlantic coast between Casablanca and Tangiers – in other words, somewhere else.

Harvesting hemp in Morocco′s northern Rif region (photo: DW)
Deprivation at the ′grassroots′: Morocco reputedly produces half of the world's hashish, with around 200,000 farmers growing hemp and around 700,000 making their living from it indirectly. Nevertheless, the Rif remains one of the poorest areas of the country

Just a few rail lines detour to the major inland cities, such as Marrakesh, Fez or Oujda; like lines of demarcation they skirt around and separate the Rif from those areas on which most of the government investment in infrastructure, economy, education and administration focuses.

The division into privileged and disadvantaged areas has a long history in Morocco. Hassan II, father of the current monarch Mohammed VI, resolutely shunned the Rif. He never as much as set foot in the region, far less ever contemplate spending money on it. Given that his reign lasted 38 years, it is clear that the people of the Rif have long had to look out for themselves.

Cannabis aplenty

The secluded nature of the region does, however, produce ideal conditions for one thing: cannabis growing – and lots of it! The huge plantations of the Rif region are world famous and, though a small region, the area has been the largest producer and exporter of hashish since the 1980s, even outdoing Afghanistan.

Morocco reputedly produces half of the world's hashish, with around 200,000 farmers growing hemp and around 700,000 making their living from it indirectly. The Rif, however, remains one of the poorest areas in the country. In a province such as Chefchaouen in the heart of the mountains, large acreages have been turned over to cannabis production according to the most recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. As a consequence, very little land is left for alternative crops such as olives or figs, with the cash crops pushing everything else aside. Even the local tourism industry promotes the hemp plantations to visitors.

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