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A Busy Botanist Is a Force for Rural Development in Morocco

Two cellphones. Three numbers. Thirty to forty phone calls a day. A work life full of road trips that has been separated for seven years from luxuries like regular hours, weekends and sleep.

Abderrahim Ouarghidi is a busy man.

In 2013, Ouarghidi received a doctorate in ethno-botany and ethno-ecology from the University of Cadi Ayyad, Morocco, where his research in rural areas focused on the roots of medicinal plants and their potential toxicity to humans. After a stint with the Global Diversity Foundation—an English non-profit that concentrates on environmental protection and human development—he began as Marrakech-based director of programs at the High Atlas Foundation. The foundation is a Moroccan and American NGO that seeks to aid rural communities in developing themselves through agriculture.

Ouarghidi advises the foundation’s sites on issues like gardening and agricultural management, and meets regularly with funders and community leaders. He also trains government officials and rural community leaders to lead town hall meetings to set community priorities and develop strategies to solve community problems. In his time with the foundation, Ouarghidi has helped start community tree nurseries, created 12 clean drinking water sites and improved living conditions for teachers at remote schools.

More broadly, this year, the foundation has planted 320,000 organic fruit trees at 94 rural schools and community nurseries across Morocco. The foundation’s president, Yossef Ben-Meir, says Ouarghidi, who was the organization’s first project manager, has left his mark on the foundation and Moroccan development. Ben-Meir describes Ouarghidi as possessing incredible stamina and a strong moral compass.

“Ouarghidi has helped the foundation in measurable and immeasurable ways, essentially like no other person,” said Ben-Meir. He has “critically helped achieve the sustainable projects of communities in so many places, and fulfilled the goals (of) innumerable partners.”

With his irregular, busy schedule, what keeps Ouarghidi going is his belief in the foundation’s mission of helping rural communities develop themselves. As a scientist and development worker, he has an unusual perspective.

“The object of being a scientist… is always to preserve resources,” said Ouarghidi. “Being a development agent, you always think about developing the community over the resources. If you’re in the middle, you can… (think) about the preserving and conserving of all the resources, but also (think) about how that can be balanced with developing the community. That’s the position I want to be in the middle, that I can bridge both sides.”

To fulfill this goal, he feels he must be available to local counterparts at all times.

“With (development) work, you can’t say after six o’clock that you’re done,” said Ouarghidi. “People might call you at 12. People might call you at five o’clock in the morning… you’re working 24 hours. Whenever people get stuck or there is an issue… they need to reach you. You cannot anticipate things.”

This availability, says Ouarghidi, creates more than an efficient partnership: it also lays the foundation for long-lasting bonds between the foundation and its rural partners.

“We’re seeking to be close to the community. We’re seeking to be participatory, because (local counterparts) know that they can participate. They know that we’re giving them the chance and a place to express themselves, to make their own decisions, then realize their projects.”

For Ouarghidi, this work has also lead to deep friendships.

“People, when they love you, they really love you,” he said. “(This job is) something that you do with love. (Local counterparts) want you… they know that you are the solution (to certain problems.)”

Ouarghidi’s effectiveness may stem from his own ties to rural life. He is of mixed Arab and Amazigh [Berber] descent, and spent childhood summers in the mountains near Marrakech, where he learned the Amazigh dialect Tachelhit. The language offers a connection that gave him insight into the lives and struggles of rural Moroccans.

“Being in the mountains and seeing people’s struggles and difficulties and going to these fields, you know what people are facing because you’ve been there, and you know exactly what’s happening,” said Ouarghidi. “You know how to get connected to them, and how to be connected to their problems, to their priorities.”

In the future, Ouarghidi hopes to focus on how gendered responsibility for water management can empower or limit women’s status in rural communities.

“I was fortunate in life. I had a great education, great opportunity. My duty is to give, because I have lots that I have to give.”

* Ida Sophie Winter is an undergraduate student of journalism at the University of Missouri. Since October, she has volunteered and worked for the High Atlas Foundation as a program assistant in Ifrane and program manager in New York.
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