Moroccan Mirages: Agrarian Dreams and Deceptions, 1912-1986

Moroccan Mirages: Agrarian Dreams and Deceptions, 1912-1986

by Will Davis Swearingen


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Morocco's future is threatened politically and economically by a growing agricultural crisis. Will Swearingen locates the roots of this crisis in French dreams for the jewel" of their colonial empire. He demonstrates that, with disastrous results, contemporary Moroccan leaders are fulfilling a colonial vision, implementing policies and plans drafted during the protectorate period.

Originally published in 1987.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691600222
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #822
Pages: 244
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 9.80(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Moroccan Mirages

Agrarian Dreams and Deceptions, 1912â"1986

By Will D. Swearingen


Copyright © 1987 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-10236-8


In Search of the Granary of Rome

Acquiring a colony and making a colonial venture profitable are two quite different affairs. Throughout the French protectorate period in Morocco (1912–56), there was a continuous gap between colonial aspirations and actual accomplishments. Later, political and economic factors would be the primary cause. During the first two decades, however, this gap was caused by colonial idealism and ignorance of Morocco's environmental realities. French colonization in Morocco and the protectorate's first agricultural policy were based on legend rather than on solid economic logic. This chapter analyzes France's "wheat policy" in Morocco — the manifestation of a misguided colonial vision. Its purpose is both to help explain French policies in Morocco and to paint the backdrop to modern irrigation development in the country.

Early Economic Appraisal

It is striking how little the French knew about Morocco as late as 1900 when they initiated a series of actions that would lead to the protectorate. Mouliéras, a leading figure in the Société de Géographie et Archéologie d'Oran, probably knew the country as well as any European at the turn of the century. He had periodically explored Morocco from 1872 to 1893. He was able to claim, in Le Maroc inconnu, that though Morocco's coastlines had been reasonably well charted, its interior had remained enshrouded in mystery "since the world began" and was an "almost completely unknown land." Ignorance of Algeria's neighbor was viewed as an embarrassing anomaly by French colonialists. It was considered paradoxical that France should have reached remote Timbuktu before it had reached Fez.

In 1900, however, the French government and various colonial interest groups initiated a lively series of study missions to Morocco. Missions sponsored by the Ministry of Commerce, the Comité de l'Afrique Fraçaise, the Comité du Maroc, the Société de Géographie de Paris, and others rapidly sketched in a preliminary picture of Moroccan society and its environment. The reports generated had decidedly propagandist overtones. However, they become the foundation upon which both colonial penetration and early protectorate policies were based. By 1907, after the French military had occupied Casablanca and the Chaouia, it was proclaimed that the age of Moroccan exploration was over, that the essential characteristics of le Maroc utile were known. What remained to be accomplished was only a methodical inventory.

It rapidly became accepted that "if Morocco is not the Eldorado ... it is at least the most favored part of North Africa." The extensive Atlantic coastal plains were claimed to be among the richest in the world. Moreover, they were relatively sparsely populated and offered a promising field for French settlement. Finally, Morocco had superlative water resources compared to the rest of Maghreb. Its rainfall appeared to guarantee a prosperous colonial agriculture. And Morocco had real rivers and streams, not just the disappointing, often dry wadis of Algeria and Tunisia.

By 1912, with the start of the French protectorate, Vaffier-Pollet's prediction was common wisdom: "The true fortune of Morocco resides in its agriculture. Through export of the fruit of its soil, Morocco will become rich." There was discouragement in some quarters that Morocco was apparently poorly endowed with mineral resources: Rich coal deposits had been expected. However, the agricultural potential, for most commentators, more than made up for deficiencies in minerals.

Morocco appeared to have been predestined for the cultivation of cereals. This perception was encouraged by several factors. First, it was believed that cereal grains had been the specialty of Moroccan agriculture "since the greatest antiquity." Second, barley and hard wheat were the predominant crops in existing native agriculture (Illus. 2). Finally, the black alluvial soils in the Atlantic plains, locally called tirs, were believed to correspond to the chernozem soils that had made the Ukraine a major grain-producing region. One geographer, speaking before the Parisian Société de Géographie Commerciale in 1916, confidently predicted that "these rich soils ... called tirs ... should make Morocco one of the most productive grain-producing regions in the world." (Only later was it discovered that tirs soils owed their dark color to iron content rather than to organic matter.)

Besides being "inscribed in the land," cereal crops were also admirably suited to the purposes of colonization. They required a relatively modest capital investment and offered an immediate return — important considerations, since settlers would need to invest large sums in constructing houses and barns, drilling wells, and purchasing farm equipment.

Further, cereal cultivation was entirely harmonious with Lyautey's philosophy of colonization. Lyautey, French Morocco's influential first resident general, had a thinly disguised aristocratic distaste for the "little settler" who had colonized Algeria. He preferred settlers of means. Indeed, there is clear evidence that his ideal for Morocco was a landed gentry. In addition, he had an idealistic resolve to honor the letter and spirit of the protectorate accord. For rural Morocco, this meant there should be none of the wholesale dispossession of native farmers that had characterized French settlement in Algeria — which Lyautey, moreover, considered politically short-sighted. He wanted a circumscribed number of settlers but a strong French presence in the countryside. He was able to accommodate these goals through a colonization policy oriented towards wheat farming on large landholdings. Finally, France suffered from an acute shortage of wheat during World War I. To French authorities, it seemed natural that Moroccan agriculture should help remedy the mother country's deficit.

The Origin of the Wheat Policy

Official memorandums of the 1915–17 period testify to the protectorate administration's efforts to increase Morocco's cereal production. Government land was leased for wheat raising, and the Direction de l'Agriculture provided settlers with loans of soft-wheat seeds. Additionally, throughout this early period of the protectorate, the new network of roads and pistes established by the French engineer corps conformed to an economic as well as a military strategy. It was designed to permit delivery of seeds, fertilizer, and agricultural equipment to settlers as well as to facilitate collection of the harvests. The French military was the major purchaser of the grain produced.

The "wheat policy" per se began to be formulated in Paris in 1915. That year, a Comité Consultative pour le Ravitaillement de la Population Civile was established by the French Minister of Commerce to develop plans for increasing food production for France. Henri Cosnier, a member of parliament and an agronomist, was the committee member charged with responsibility for grain production.

In 1916, after several French grain ships had been sunk by torpedoes, precipitating a food crisis, Cosnier advocated the immediate planting of cereals "in North Africa in particular, and especially in Morocco where ... it appears possible to put into cultivation considerable expanses of land." Several days later, he was appointed head of a study mission to Morocco. The mission's primary purpose was to develop a strategy for increasing Moroccan cereal production for the metropole. Mission members spent three months (April, May, and June 1917) in Morocco. Following their return, Cosnier was appointed Commissaire Générale à l'Agriculture pour l'Afrique du Nord et Ies Colonies Fraçaises. He was thus in a position to actualize his mission's recommendations.

Though, as will be seen, there were countervailing views regarding Morocco's development, the recommendations of the Mission Cosnier had an immediate and profound effect. Indeed, they became the blueprint for French Morocco's first agricultural and colonization policy. This policy, the "wheat policy," predominated until the agricultural crisis of the early 1930s. Its impact has remained to the present.

To increase Morocco's cereal production, the Cosnier mission advocated:

1. Wheat production on "new lands" through colonization

2. A higher price for cereal crops

3. Agricultural subsidies and bonuses

4. Agricultural mechanization

All of these recommendations were adopted by the protectorate administration.

With regard to colonization per se, the Cosnier mission advocated large holding sizes. It specifically recommended 400-hectare farms. Large holdings would facilitate mechanization for most efficient wheat production. Furthermore, Morocco could settle immigrants from the war-ravaged grain belt of northern France, who would bring with them "mechanized methods that have succeeded so well" in the mother country.

The mission's advice regarding colonization policy was also followed. An official colonization program was established in 1917 (see Table 1). The program was active until 1931; after 1931, little additional government-sponsored colonization took place. From 1917 to 1931, the protectorate government settled roughly 1,600 settlers on 250,000 hectares, mainly in the Fez-Meknes, Chaouia, Marrakech, and Gharb regions. As these figures show, the program placed major emphasis on large holdings. Indeed, 97 percent of the land distributed was in holdings larger than 150 hectares; the typical holding was about 250 hectares. The fact that this falls short of the 400 hectares recommended by Cosnier was mainly due to a shortage of available land. Simultaneously, during the same period, an estimated 550,000 hectares were privately settled by some 1,500 Europeans, mostly French. Private colonization was concentrated in the Basse Moulouya, Gharb, and Chaouia regions. Private settler farms averaged 367 hectares in size — close to the Cosnier ideal.

The Cosnier strategy to convert Morocco into a breadbasket for France dovetailed with a postwar master plan for the development of the French overseas empire. Albert Sarraut, then Minister of Colonies, was the architect of this plan. A central feature of the Plan Sarraut was its conception of a vast division of labor: Each colony should specialize in the production of certain primary materials for the metropole. Thus, for example, Madagascar would produce meat and minerals; the Antilles, sugar and coffee; Indochina, cotton, rubber, and silk; and Equatorial Africa, oil crops and wood.

Owing to the idiosyncrasies of French administrative history, North Africa fell outside the purview of Sarraut's ministry. It was consequently not a part of his specific plan. However, in a speech before the Chamber of Deputies on 12 April 1921, Sarraut emphasized the unhealthy French trade situation with regard to cereals. Of 32 million quintals of grain imported in 1919, only 7 million were produced by France's colonies. As a result, France was losing over 2 billion francs a year. The situation was disastrous; North Africa must develop the remedy. In precisely this way, the Cosnier plan dovetailed with the Plan Sarraut.

While the Cosnier mission presented the blueprint, the details of Morocco's wheat policy were provided by the protectorate administration, charged with its implementation. Major emphasis was placed on primes, or the subsidies and bonuses that Cosnier had advocated. The following elaborate system resulted:

1. A special prime of 3 francs for every quintal of soft wheat

2. Primes of 18.5 francs per quintal for soft and hard wheat and 13.5 francs for barley, maize, and sorghum, on condition that these be grown in fields worked by a European steel plow and that the harvest be sold for export to the metropole

3. A prime of up to 200 francs per hectare for clearing new land (the exact amount varied according to the density of the dwarf palm or other natural vegetation to be cleared)

4. A prime of 25 francs for each hectare worked with mechanical devices (to allow both for the high cost of gasoline to pull these devices and the expense of repairs due to the shortage of experienced mechanics)

5. A special prime of 50 francs per hectare put into cultivation by tractor beyond the total area that could be cultivated without a tractor.

Clearly, these primes were designed to encourage mechanized cereal production for the metropole and at the same time implant European wheat farmers. The protectorate administration's credit facilities and considerable propaganda efforts also served to implement the wheat policy.

The Wheat Policy in Action

The protectorate administration's efforts succeeded spectacularly — if measured by expansion of acreage in cereal crops. The area planted in cereals increased from approximately 1.9 million hectares in 1918 to nearly 3 million in 1929, an increase of 60 percent. There was a close correlation between the expansion of colonization and the expansion of wheat areas planted by Europeans. Particularly impressive was the spread of soft wheat, a crop new to Morocco. European soft-wheat acreage in Morocco increased from virtually zero in 1912 to 138,090 hectares in 1932. This growth was closely paralleled by the extension of soft-wheat cultivation by native farmers, stimulated by soft: wheat's high market price.

The dramatic increase in wheat acreage was proudly touted as a beneficent effect of the French protectorate, as the restoration of an ancient land after centuries of Arab neglect. It was regarded as proof of Morocco's mise en valeur, or development. In reality, however, there were steadily increasing danger signs.

Morocco is on the margins of the good earth in terms of wheat cultivation for export. Nearly all of its cereal cultivation (then, as now) is by rainfed or dry farming methods. In short, it is at the mercy of highly capricious fluctuations in precipitation. Climate was the principal reason that Moroccan wheat production could not compete on the world market. It was the primary cause of perennial low yields. In a poor year, such as 1930, soft-wheat production in Morocco averaged only 4.3 quintals per hectare. Even in a good year, such as 1931, it averaged only 9 quintals per hectare. By contrast, France's soft-wheat production during the period 1918–30 averaged 15 quintals per hectare.

Low yields meant relatively high production costs and low net returns. This is because production costs are basically the same regardless of how the harvest turns out. In addition, there was the considerable expense of transport between Moroccan and French ports. The net result, in one economist's estimation, was that in Morocco "The cultivation of cereals for export, particularly wheat, would long ago have been abandoned ... without the metropole's protection." During the 1920s, despite relatively low costs for land and labor, Moroccan wheat production costs were higher than world wheat prices. By the late 1920s, with a world glut of wheat and concomitant lowering of price, France was supporting wheat cultivation in Morocco with an artificially maintained price three times the world average.

France sustained colonial wheat production in Morocco through a tariff-free quota system and stiff trade barriers. The quota for wheat was established by the French law of 18 March 1923. This law was intended to stimulate wheat production by guaranteeing a lucrative market. It became a vital element of French Morocco's wheat policy.

The law stated simply that each year a certain quota of Moroccan wheat would be admitted into France without tariff, the amount to be determined on the basis of the previous year's production figures. In practice, this quota was so liberally calculated (at 800,000 quintals) that France absorbed all of Morocco's surplus production.

Once inside France, Moroccan wheat profited from the formidable French trade barriers and commanded the same artificially high price as French wheat. Even on wheat prices within Morocco itself, the 1923 law had a dramatic effect. Before 1923, wheat sold for considerably less in Morocco than in France; after the law (but before the agricultural crisis of the 1930s), the Moroccan price was only 6 to 8 francs less than the French price, the difference being essentially the freight charges to France. In short, "Self-absorbed, indifferent to the problem of markets, Morocco abandoned itself to the collective exaltation of wheat."


Excerpted from Moroccan Mirages by Will D. Swearingen. Copyright © 1987 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Illustrations, pg. ix
  • Figures, pg. x
  • Tables, pg. xi
  • Acknowledgments, pg. xiii
  • Note on Transliteration, pg. xvi
  • Abbreviations, pg. xviii
  • Introduction, pg. 1
  • 1. In Search of the Granary of Rome, pg. 15
  • 2. Not a Drop of Water to the Sea, pg. 36
  • 3. The California Dream, pg. 59
  • 4. One Million Hectares by the Year 2000, pg. 78
  • 5. Pioneering Morocco's Development Formula, pg. 111
  • 6. Fulfilling the Colonial Vision, pg. 143
  • Summary and Conclusion, pg. 186
  • Epilogue: Policy by Illusion, pg. 193
  • Sources and Bibliography, pg. 197
  • Index, pg. 213

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