Jerada, the graveyard of clandestine miners in eastern Morocco

The death of two brothers in coal mines triggered protests in Jerada.
Thursday 15/02/2018
A Moroccan coal miner descends into one of the many informal mines in the town of Jerada, on February 4. (AP)
A Moroccan coal miner descends into one of the many informal mines in the town of Jerada, on February 4. (AP)

CASABLANCA - Jerada has an international reputation as a graveyard for young unemployed inhabitants trying to scrape a meagre and dangerous living in abandoned coal pits after a 32-year-old miner died February 1, the third mining-related death there in 40 days.

Hundreds of people risk their lives every day to dig coal from abandoned pits known as “the mines of death.” They sell coal for 600-700 dirhams ($65-$75) a ton to companies that resell it for about twice as much.

The small eastern Moroccan city of Jerada was once a beacon of the coal mining industry, employing 9,000 people until authorities in the 1990s shut it down due to its high operating costs. Unemployment skyrocketed, engendering social and economic problems in the region and many people left to seek a better life.

Abderrazak Daioui, a clandestine miner, said the abandoned coal mines, where an unknown number of people eke out a living, were their only source of living because there was no alternative. There are no plans to formally re-open the mines.

The death of two brothers in December in “illegal but tolerated” coal mines triggered almost daily protests in Jerada against economic marginalisation and harsh living conditions.

Moroccans march during a protest in Jerada, on February 10. (Reuters)

Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani’s visit to Jerada on February 11 failed to quell tensions despite the announcement of several measures. He also said four licences for coal exploitation held by politicians at Jerada not in accordance with the law would be withdrawn, a statement issued by his cabinet said.

The withdrawal of licences leaves approximately 2,000 clandestine miners without revenue.

El Othmani said a recent study showed an “unexploited mining potential” at Jerada, with lead, copper and zinc reserves that could benefit the local population. He added that funds would be released for mine employees affected by silicosis and that housing would be allocated to them.

Government spokesman Mustapha El Khalfi said the government was committed to implementing its promises to solve the area’s socio-economic problems. The government allocated 7 billion dirhams (almost $758 million) to the marginalised regions.

Moroccan Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Aziz Akhannouch announced a series of urgent measures to boost the agricultural sector and create thousands of jobs. Programmes planned under the 2018 Finance Act include the extension of an irrigated perimeter of 1,000 hectares, the rehabilitation of the irrigated existing perimeter of 2,000 hectares and the upgrade of pastures.

“There is a strong willingness to cooperate and intensify efforts to ensure the success of agricultural projects in the region,” said Akhannouch. “It is up to all of us to ensure continuous follow-up and support of projects launched to reach the expected objectives.”

Minister of Energy, Mines and Sustainable Development Aziz Rebbah said the government was interacting with the people of Jerada and would support social development in the region.

“Some achievements have already been initiated, while the culmination of others requires more time,” Rebbah told Medi1 TV, referring to his development programme.

Activists demanded “strong” structural measures, including the creation of 5,000 jobs and an investigation to determine those responsible for the economic problems of the city.

Lahcen Elghali, former president of Jerada City Council, said local authorities responded positively to claims by activists, including promising to employ 500 people in the near future and 1,500 more in the medium term.

The protests in Jerada came more than a year after the death of fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri, who was crushed inside a rubbish truck in Al-Hoceima as he apparently tried to protest the seizure and destruction of hundreds of kilograms of swordfish, which were caught outside of season.

Fikri’s death sparked a grass-roots effort called Al-Hirak al-Shaabi (Popular Movement) led by Nasser Zefzafi in Al-Hoceima, demanding social justice, jobs and health care. Moroccan King Mohammed VI slammed the government for failing to implement a development programme signed in 2015 for Al-Hoceima.

Hirak activists, including Zefzafi, were standing trial on several charges, including “plotting to undermine internal state security” and undermining “citizens’ loyalty to the Moroccan state.”