REPORTAGE. Figuig, the contested heritage (1/2) – Médias24

FIGUIG.- Placed on a plateau at an altitude of 900m, facing neighboring Algeria, the town of Figuig often makes the front page of the media for its status as a border zone. Lately, she has been talking about her for something else. On September 20, a document leaked from the agenda of the city council meeting included, in one of these points, the discussion of the declassification and reclassification of the city and its almost millennium palm grove from the list of national heritage. .

A draft decision that will provoke an outcry within social networks. A few hours later, a new backdated document was shared but without mentioning the subject of the decommissioning visibly deleted.

Incongruous decision

It must be said that the fact is quite incongruous. The sites and monuments claiming the classification of the Ministry of Culture are so numerous that it takes years or even decades to be able to integrate the list. Figuig was only included in the national heritage in 2015, after having been on the indicative list of UNESCO World Heritage in 2011.

A ranking that is not without clashes. The city of Figuig is not at its first hitch with this new status of national heritage. In June 2020, upon release from containment, a road, not provided for in the town planning documents was launched at the heritage site. Already at the time, a very large mobilization of civil society came to denounce “the disfigurement” of the palm grove but without being able to stop the work.

The palm grove is an integral part of the city’s classification. It spreads over nearly 700 hectares on the Moroccan side and extends beyond the border overflowing on the adjoining Algerian locality Beni-Ounif. It is surrounded in an arc of a circle by 7 ksours (districts), traditional habitats of the founding families of the city and its palm grove.


The situation of Figuig is particular. It is in a basin, protected by a mountainous circus acting, with the Zousfana wadi, as a border with neighboring Algeria. Landlocked, with a single access road from Bouarfa (110 km), itself linked to the Merzouga road to the south (260 km), Figuig is often described by its inhabitants as a “frying pan” or a “pocket of pants” in view of its unique point of access.

The Figuig palm grove with Beniounif in the background.

In recent years, with chronic drought, but also with depopulation, the resources of the palm grove have drastically decreased. Based mainly on the agriculture of date palms, a few feet of fruit trees, cereals and vegetables in the event of heavy rain, its 10,000 inhabitants rely heavily on transfers from its large national and international diaspora.

A precarious situation that makes the president of the municipal council of Figuig Abdenbi Affi: “What has this heritage classification brought us? We, what we need is to develop”. The new RNI president elected in 2021, but nevertheless a member of the Board since 2009, thus defends his project tooth and nail. “We withdrew the item from our agenda, not under pressure, but because we actually made a mistake in the wording and the approach. We need to be able to open a broader debate around this question, in particular with actors from civil society and the Ministry of Culture,” he says.

Downgrade to better rank?

However, for him, the project consists in reconsidering the full classification of the city and its palm grove as heritage. “We want to choose what will be classified or not, to have more freedom in our development projects. This classification must not hinder the modernization of our city and its attractiveness to investors. An approach that may seem legitimate for a municipal president elected for a 5-year term. But what about the long-term impact on a natural fabric and a fragile centuries-old structure?

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Inside the ksour, traditional techniques and concrete coexist.

Montaser Laoukili, Regional Director of Culture, cites Law No. 22-80 relating to the conservation of historic monuments and sites. According to article 36 of this law, the municipal council is entirely within its right to request downgrading. However, there must be a procedure, a technical commission, etc. and the last word goes to the guardianship: it accepts or rejects the process. In addition, and in compliance with parallelism of forms, it is up to the same authority that issued the classification to sign the downgrading text, if there is a downgrading. However, it turns out that this classification had been pronounced by the Head of Government, it is up to him in the last resort to approve this downgrading or not after a proposal from the Department of Culture”. A procedure which has not even been initiated according to the Regional Director: “so far, the Regional Directorate of Culture has not received any document from the Figuig municipal council announcing a decision of this kind” , thus slices Laoukili.

A storm in a glass of water ? Not so sure ! because in fact, the nibbling of the palm grove and its fabric has indeed begun.

Heritage integrity started

First of all, there is the so-called tourist route, dug in 2020. This one cut the palm grove in two allowing the circulation of cars, tricycles and motorcycles inside the palm grove.

Long of nearly 5 km, this road carried out in the urgency and under the pressure of its contradictors, remains fragile of the opinion even of Mohamed Affi. “We have to be able to reinforce it because in the event of heavy rains, it risks being washed away in the orchards it crosses”. Its fragility comes partly from the fact that it was built along a limestone slope (The cliff) prehistoric and that it is elevated in relation to the orchards below which puts it in direct interaction with its environment in an unpredictable way. In fact, according to the geomorphologist originally from Figuig Abderrahman Haradji, the area is quite simply “non aedificandi”, that is to say that in addition to its heritage status, and because of natural constraints, it is forbidden to build anything on it. “The consequences for the embankment, for the palm grove and for the road itself will be really disastrous,” says the professor at the University of Oujda.

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Abandoned watchtowers.

On the other hand, for lack of maintenance, many of the city’s monuments are falling into ruin, such as historic watchtowers (Aferdou), and entire parts of the surrounding walls of certain Ksours. For the sake of rapid and inexpensive modernization, several historic buildings have seen the construction of elevations or reinforcements with cement or reinforced concrete, directly on traditional stone and adobe constructions in raw earth. Other buildings or squares have been built in a modern way, tainting the typical cachet of the city.

Inside the palm grove, in the middle of plots dedicated to agriculture, building permits and housing permits have for years been granted for villas and other buildings in total contradiction with the protection standards of the areas. heritage.

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White areas next to the tourist route.

So many arguments both for the defenders of the sanctuary of the city and its palm grove and for its detractors. For Affi, the fact that there are so many new elements within the old fabric shows the need to reclassify certain areas to give the possibility of modernizing the city. While for the detractors, the absence of protection of the entire heritage, will make the classification obsolete, and threatens the whole ecosystem.

Thus, for the voices who question this approach, the city certainly needs investments, but the approach of the president of the municipality is rather partial and lacks originality. He confuses modern life and concrete. “The identity of the city was built around its palm grove, first of all, its culture, its geographical location even if it is landlocked. Its identity, contrary to what it says, is the absence of concrete,” says a connoisseur of the city. If Figuig was one day classified, it is to avoid this kind of abuse.

For most local civil society actors, the path chosen by the Municipal Council favors concretization rather than capitalization on the city’s assets. A choice that compromises its centuries-old oasis identity. And to our source to add: “Figuig must become a Moroccan showcase for sustainable development. You have to find the right concept to open it up, develop it in your own way, in line with its past. Modernization does not necessarily mean Westernization. Preserving Figuig and developing it is a challenge for the whole government through various departments as well as for the region and the province, not just that of the municipal council with limited resources”. Its geographical location as an oasis on the borders of the territory, indeed requires the implementation of innovative and daring solutions to ensure its development in an endogenous and sustainable way without compromising its fragile ecosystem.

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Abdenbi Affi, president of the municipal council of Figuig.

Downgrade and after?

In the mind of the president of the municipality of Figuig, things are clear. According to him, the only way to inject money in the city is to allow real estate and land investments of its diaspora.

For him, it is a question of modernizing the city, hence the need to offload the constraints of classification. One of the first points is to secure the new palm grove road. “We have started to negotiate with various authorities how to reinforce the road with retaining walls and a drainage system to avoid any danger from the rain. We also seek to enlighten it. In addition, we are discussing with the Ministry of Agriculture to equip the gardens along this road with irrigation canals”.

The new road will be a major tourist attraction for him: “Along the tourist route, we can build cafes or kiosks for tourists. Of course, the facades can have the traditional cachet, but nothing prevents building in concrete,” he says. And to add, “how do you want to interest future investors if the permitted heights are low and the building materials are not modern? “.

A vision pleading for a rapid growth of the city without taking into consideration its geographical and cultural specificities.


© Photos Ghassan Wail El Karmouni / Medias24

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REPORTAGE. Figuig, the contested heritage (1/2) – Médias24

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