Morocco's vulnerable cedar trees are being cut down illegally

Cedar trees cut down near Tounfit, Morocco. (Photo: Mohammed Attaoui)
Cedar trees cut down near Tounfit, Morocco. (Photo: Mohammed Attaoui)

The Atlas cedar, a species that covers 134,000 hectares of land in Morocco and is already threatened by climate change, is a common target of illegal logging. But activists are now using social media to document the destruction of the trees, which they say highlights the lack of resources needed to preserve the Atlas ecosystem.

The photos of uprooted trees and jagged stumps are a stark reminder of the illegal trade of the Atlas cedar, a species native to the mountains of the same name that span the northern edge of Morocco, and whose timber commands high prices on the market. Our team came across several videos showing felled cedar trees in Tounfit, in the Middle Atlas mountain range in central Morocco.

“It's a lucrative industry, with cedar wood going for €1,200 per cubic metre"

Environmental activist Mohammed Attaoui hopes to use his videos of the destruction of these trees to denounce the illegal logging industry.

I used Facebook Live to show people how easy it is to find felled trees in the Tounfit cedar grove. I even came across stumps just a few metres from the park ranger station.

Morocco hosted the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2016, but we have thousand-year-old trees that are being chopped down right here. Why is this illegal trade still going on?

Illegal logging is a major threat to the Atlas cedar, which has already suffered from the drought brought on by climate change. In 2013, it was added to the red list of threatened species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

It's a lucrative industry, with cedar wood going for €1,200 per cubic metre. The trees are as tall as buildings, sometimes reaching up to 40 metres high. The money you could get cutting down a few trees would be astronomical.

The global illegal logging trade is valued at between $30 billion and $100 billion annually (or between €27 and €89 billion), according to a 2012 report by Interpol and the United Nations Environment Programme.


"There aren't enough park rangers"

Attaoui says he was assaulted by illegal loggers who threw rocks at him as he was filming. These types of clashes frequently occur, says a park ranger in the Middle Atlas who did not want to be identified. He added that rangers usually have few resources at their disposal.

Crimes are committed every day in the Middle Atlas mountain range. The park rangers are in a tough situation: there aren't very many of us and we are poorly paid, usually around 400 euros a month when you first start out. We also don't have enough cars and petrol. I'm responsible for a section of the forest and I don't even have a car to carry out patrols! I can't fight the illegal loggers, who are much better equipped than us: they have more cars, more chainsaws, and they have lookout men as well.

A video, filmed by an unknown individual, of illegally felled cedar trees that was circulated on social media.


“We need to keep illegal loggers out of the forest”

Samir Abderrafi, director of the Association for Life and Earth Science Teachers in Morocco, an environmental protection group, says the region's economy must also be further developed in order to successfully combat illegal logging.

It's clearly important to be tougher on people who loot the forest and destroy the Atlas cedars, but what's really needed is a way to keep them out of the forest. Protecting the forest is the least of their worries because many of them are just trying to survive. There are high rates of unemployment in the area and selling cedar wood illegally is a significant source of revenue. These people need stable jobs, perhaps something in forest management, for example.

Illegal logging is just one example of the pressure placed by humans on the cedar ecosystem. Overgrazing is another issue. In the past, herdsmen would migrate from the cedar forests to the plains between seasons. At some point, they began settling down in one location, meaning that their sheep grazed constantly on the same patch of land, which leads to soil degradation.

We also think that if local children had better access to education, they could leave the region and go work in the city, which would reduce the pressure on the forests.

The Middle Atlas plays an important role in the ecosystem. It is known as Morocco’s water tower because the trees help the water flow into water tables. We need to work with people to help them see cedars as a part of our national heritage that should be preserved, not as goods to be exploited.

The Moroccan High Commissionner for water, forests and anti-desertification did not respond to a request for comment.

This story was written by Pierre Hamdi.