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3/18/10 Atelier de Sculpteur

Note: Revised slightly on 3/23 to correct a few details I'd misunderstood.

Over the river and through the woods from my village - OK, literally, along a river valley and through half a dozen mountain passes from me - is the small village of Agouti. Their nearest biggish town is Ait Bougamez, known to ecotourists as the jumping-off point for Jbel M'Goun, the second tallest peak in Morocco.

Their community faced challenges similar to mine: viciously cold winters, shortage of wood, protected (National Park) land filled with easy-to-poach wood low incomes that made buying wood impossible or nearly so... The local Water and Forestry Department (WFD) representatives were getting increasingly frustrated by the locals' habit of sneaking into the protected areas and poaching (chopping and stealing) the protected trees. On the other side, the mostly-illiterate villagers couldn't understand why they were suddenly being fined and punished for gathering fuelwood to survive the winter, as they've done for thousands of years.

Enter the Atelier de Sculpteur. The "Sculptor's Studio" or "Carver's Workshop" (both translations are equally valid, in Moroccan French) was formed by men who carved tools - spoons, bowls, forks, cups - as they and their fathers and forefathers had done for countless generations. When their road was paved a handful of years ago, bringing in tourists and hikers, they found a new market for their craft.

Recently, some of the Atelier de Sculpteur artisans, with help from a Peace Corps Volunteer, brokered a fairly ingenious solution to their wood-poaching problem. In exchange for official permission to pick up fallen deadwood from these protected and endangered trees, the craftsmen promised to plant more trees and protect the living specimens in their forest from wood poaching by their neighbors. They can carve the chunks of deadwood into gorgeous woodcrafts that they sell to ecotourists and, increasingly, to visitors to their beautifully designed website (which you can check out here, or read about the creation of here - second story down).


In 2006, some of the members of the Atelier de Sculpteur formed an NGO named Association Ighrem, to help solve some of the challenges that rapid development and exponentially growing ecotourism had brought to the village. (Ighrem is the Tamazight word for the ancient Amazigh fortresses whose ruins perch above many of our mountain villages.)

Association Ighrem made a further pledge: for every woodcraft purchased from the Atelier de Sculpteur, it would plant a tree of whatever species* the item had been carved from. Buy a boxwood spoon and they'll plant a boxwood tree. Buy a walnut bowl and a walnut tree will soon blossom in the protected forests.

* Unfortunately, this hasn't worked out yet, for logistical reasons. They're hoping to start it next year, but this year, they're planting apple trees - one of the best cash crops in mountainous areas like ours. And just to make the contribution even more powerful, they donated the trees to the poorer families in the village (a disabled man, and a widowed woman with 5 children in school) to help with their financial circumstances. The carvers were so happy with this idea that they may ultimately find a balance between these two solutions in coming years. As of January 29th, Association Ighrem had expected to plant 26 trees in March (March being the optimal planting season for most trees). Thanks to the success of their website and Facebook page, though, they made dozens more sales in the past month and a half, resulting in a planting of 80 trees yesterday, March 17th.

Moreover, 33% of the profits from every sale flow directly into the Association Ighrem coffers, for use in various development projects. They recently held an eye clinic, where 400 villagers received free vision screenings and eye care; they're planting vetiver, a non-invasive erosion-fighting grass that purifies groundwater and strengthens hillsides; they partnered with a student group to provide wheelchairs to residents of Agouti as well as to the Ait Bougamez health clinic; they organized and hosted a grant-writing workshop for their community; the list goes on and on.

But there's only so much deadwood - what happens when they run out?

While wood is a highly renewable resource - especially if new trees are being planted regularly! - the artisans currently craft their products from the deadwood that has accumulated over decades and centuries, and yes, they're using it up faster than the remaining trees are dying. Knowing this, they've deliberately set high pricepoints on their products. In other words, they know they can't do this forever, so they're going to maximize the returns it brings their community. (For reference: I find the prices similar to those of comparable handcrafted items you might find in Ten Thousand Villages, and cheaper than similar items at The Bombay Company, but that does make them expensive by Moroccan standards, with our delightfully low cost of living.) With a degree of foresight rare in third-world villages, Agouti's craftsmen are investing their current windfall into building infrastructure supports and meeting vital community needs.

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