At the southern gate of the blue-coloured medina of Chefchauen, the traditional street activity within walls is overturned by the roaring sound of motorised vehicles in transit to and from nearby villages. From a distance, the taxi station manager shouts – “Bab Berred uahed, Bab Berred uahed!” – informing passing clients that there is only one seat left in the 1953 Mercedes Benz going up to the village of Bab Berred.
I rush for the taxi taking my place in the five-seating vehicle with six other passengers plus the driver and we leave following the N2 due west, making our way up and deep into the heart of the Rif Mountains.
Our journey takes us along the southern flank of Jebel Lahkra passing through olive and almond fields and cork-oak forests. It is July and a humid air travelling from the Atlantic is covering the landscape in a dense and bright fog. Beyond the taxi window, the distant scenery is set in a monochrome tone, with opening clouds revealing rugged limestone peaks stripped of vegetation cover, with occasional Atlantic Cedar trunks reaching for the sky.
Placed between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, the mountainous area of the Rif is best known for its marijuana plantations, hashish traffic and chilled-out environment for the foreigner traveller in the search of a smoke. But cannabis cultivation in this part of Morocco is strongly connected with a complex history of rivalries and conflicts set between the local Berber tribes and the Arab and European invaders.
The presence of cannabis in the Rif goes far back in time. According to Abderrahmane Merzouki of the Ethnobotanical Laboratory of the University of Tetuan, the presence of marijuana can be traced as far as the 15th century, originally brought by the Arab and Jewish population who escaped from Andalucía during the re-conquest of the Iberian Peninsula by the Catholic kings. Until the 19th century plantations where constrained to the douars (villages) of Ketama, Beni Khaled and Senhaja and the plant was mainly used for recreational and medicinal purposes by mixing it with tobacco to form what is locally known as kif.
After the rebellion of 1958, when the Rifain population fought for the independence from the kingdom of Morocco, prince Hassan II punished the region by cutting all government funds for local development for the next 38 years, forcing people to immigrate or engage in hashish production in order to subsist. As a consequence, plantations spread from the Ketama province all the way to the coastal plains of Larache in the west and to the east towards Al-Hoceima, in detriment of oak and cedar forests and Mediterranean shrub habitats.
In 2003, the United Nations report on drugs stated that approximately 80% of the hashish consumed in Europe has its origin in the Rif and that boarder authorities seize nearly 1.300 tons of hash every year. Since the rise of Mohamed VI in 1998, the Moroccan policy towards marijuana changed dramatically under the pressure of America and the United Nations. Over the last 15 years Moroccan authorities controlled production growth through law enforcement-oriented policies, without applying any compensatory measures to local farmers. After the publication of the UN report, between 2004 and 2010 plantations along the outer sector of the Rif close to Larache and Beni Hamed were destroyed. Furthermore, new roads and high-end touristic infrastructures were built along the Mediterranean coast with the objective of improving accessibility and force farmers to move cultures away from the public eye and deeper into the mountain.
On the quest for the kif culture of the Rif, our journey continues following a winding road leading east of Chefchauen. Fourty-five minutes I ask the driver to stop. From this point onward, cannabis plantations are visible in the distance as if the land was partially covered in a green tapestry. I start to walk alongside the asphalt breaking right on a steep dirt road. In the distance a sound of beating drums coming from a nearby house echoes throughout the valley with a precise tribal rhythm. My steps are drawn to it. As I approach the front door a man appears from a side window inviting me for tea.
Mohamed was born and raised in the Rif. With fifty-five years of age he belongs to the fourth generation of farmers in his family. Living along the western limit of the Chefchauen province in a traditional adobe house with metal plate roofing, Mohamed and his family enjoy the tranquil life that the mountain provides, subsisting of sheep, olives, figs and a 20acre field of cannabis.
I’m taken through the front door and invited into a room with a wooden table and two large sofas on each side. Next to me, two men continuously beat on cannabis stems with sticks, forcing cannabis pollen through a sieve and into a large plastic bowl. “This is how we extract the pollen from the plant. After this it can be pressed into hash blocks” says Mohamed while finishing the work.
Eventually the drumming processes reached its end and I’m invited to go for a walk. We leave his home following a narrow path alongside black rubber irrigation tubes leading down to a marijuana field and we sit under a fig tree on the bank of a gently flowing stream. As the weather clears the sun lights the fields into vivid green leaving us to contemplate this centennial agricultural landscape while sharing a glass of sugary mint tea.
Looking at the landscape my mind is taken through the facts. On a cultural and social perspective, the lack of viable and equally profitable alternatives to cannabis challenges the implementation of any political decision. But on a legal viewpoint, the illicitness associated with this plant makes so that it is formally associated with drug trafficking, illegal emigration and international organized crime.
The undeniable truth is that in a region deprived of economic growth for more than 40 years, the production of kif has allowed many families to subsist. But again, the future of the Rif lays in the hands o the Moroccan government and only time will tell what will be of the kif culture of the Rif.