Moroccan villagers demand return of their land after mining pollution

Askaoun, a village near the Zgounder silver mine in southern Morocco. (Abdellah Ahben)
Askaoun, a village near the Zgounder silver mine in southern Morocco. (Abdellah Ahben)


Askaoun, a small village in southwestern Morocco, consists of just a few homes, a dirt road and a handful of electric poles scattered across an arid landscape. In 2014, a Canadian mining company called Maya Gold and Silver began work on the nearby Zgounder mine, creating jobs for some locals and bringing hope that the area would be developed.

But residents, fed up with constant noise and pollution from the mining operations, are now asserting their claims to the land and demanding that the company cease site activities. They say the company has appropriated a water source, leading to water shortages, and has been operating without their consent.

Abdellah Ahben, one of the locals involved in the campaign, said residents were demanding reparations for the exploitation work being conducted on their lands. 

"Our demands fell on deaf ears"

This land has always belonged to the residents of the village, long before there were any official registers. We reached out on several occasions to the local authorities in an attempt to get them to respect our rights and give us property titles, but our requests have fallen on deaf ears.

Parliament members from the Justice and Development Party (PJD) laid out the Askaoun residents’ concerns in a letter to the Ministry for Energy and Mines.

Askaoun residents wrote a letter to local authorities requesting property titles for land they say has historically belonged to them.

Maya Gold and Silver disputed the claims, arguing that the land in question was considered collective land that did not belong to anyone. General director Noureddine Mokadem also said the company was acting within its rights regarding the contested water source used in its mining operations.

The water we are using for silver extraction comes from Ouarzazate, near the High Atlas mountains. Local authorities diverted the water in the 1980s so that it could be used in mining operations. When the silver extraction stopped for several years, people got used to using the water to irrigate their fields and water livestock. But now that we're exploiting the mine again, we have to use the water that was brought here specifically for the mine.

The company has signed minutes from its meetings with village representatives in which residents demanded that Maya Gold and Silver provide them with access to the water and contribute to the area's development as compensation.

Meeting minutes dated June 6, 2018, signed by the Askaoun residents' association, the city of Askaoun and Maya Gold and Silver, in which local authorities agree to provide residents with property titles as quickly as possible.

Residents also say that chemical waste generated by the mining activity has had a negative impact on the environment. The Ministry of Energy and Mines said in a 2018 letter that more than half of silver mining was conducting using flotation, a process for separating materials that aims to "reduce the environmental impact that past mining operations may have had." The letter also stated that Maya Gold and Silver's operations had been approved in 2014.

A 2018 letter to the Askaoun residents' association from the Ministry of Energy and Mines about extraction methods.

The France 24 Observers team was unable to reach local authorities for comment.

This story was written by Sarra Grira.