In the Rif mountains in northern Morocco – that remarkable place in contemporary Spanish history – a platform led and managed by young Spaniards and Rif people is carrying out one of the first plant-based humanitarian aid campaigns in the world.
Although this may represent an oxymoron for those who brand the vegan movement as elitist, paternalistic and Western, the truth is that this initiative is part of the founding objective of the youth platform Rif Tribes Foundation, which is to protect and preserve the cultural heritage of the Rif tribes. But how could the reintroduction of plant-based diets help the indigenous populations of North Africa?
The daily consumption of meat, a colonial legacy
While the movement in the form of activism and strategic litigation can be traced back to the famous meeting of 1944 in which six white individuals coined the term ‘vegan’ and laid the foundations for its modern version, the origins of the practice itself go much further back, and are located in one of the continents where it is seen as most difficult to propose a transition from food model today: Africa.
In fact, the original dietary practices of the African and North African general culture, dating back centuries, are actually based on vegetables and grains. Meat and other animal products were seen as a commodity and something that was not consumed unless it was for extremely important celebrations, such as a wedding or a funeral, he tells ProVeg International Nicola Kagoro, from the movement African Vegan on a Budget. It is not until the early stages of colonization that we begin to see the first traces of what will become one of the most deeply rooted colonial legacies: the daily consumption of meat.
This tradition has not been inherited through the mere assimilation of European habits, but mainly through the effects of the disasters caused by colonization.
Food insecurity in the Rif
The Rif, which occupies the northeastern part of Morocco, is a quintessential Mediterranean landscape. Consequently, its peoples have been accustomed, due to their exposure to specific environmental conditions, to what has now been coined the ‘Mediterranean diet’, defined in turn by an abundant intake of plant foods and a low consumption of organic products. animals (Willett WC, Sacks F. et al.). In fact, many of their ancestral traditional dishes are already completely vegetarian or have a vegetarian version of their own, like the traditional ones. Tamrekt, Djubyeth, tagine, Shlada, Tahrart or many breakfasts like Msemen wave hasha.
However, what we eat is not always a choice, but rather, in this context, the fruit of what is available and affordable.
The Rif is probably the most disadvantaged area in Morocco, considered by the analyst Susanne Kaiser a place devastated by institutional abandonment and isolation. The majority of the population lives in rural settings, where, according to a survey conducted by the Rif Tribes Foundation, most of the animal products consumed come from local markets, indicating that most of this consumption is based on what is available in perhaps the only market in his small mountain village.
However, this does not mean that the Rif populations do not try to be faithful to their traditional diets. Half of those surveyed said they ate meat once a week, while 40% said they did so two to three times a week. Meanwhile, despite the lack of exact terminology to refer to a vegetarian diet, 49.1% reported eating between four and six full plant-based meals per week, while 28.1% reported eating more of six times.
Asked about the reasons that explained their food insecurity, high prices and difficult accessibility were frequent answers. Being a platform dedicated to supporting the Rif tribes and their rich heritage, the Rif Tribes Foundation therefore decided to approach its humanitarian aid approach from a local, sustainable and long-term perspective.
A youth-led humanitarian aid mission
In 2022, the Rif Tribes Foundation launched the first of its distributions within its humanitarian aid campaign. Within a month, it was able to deliver more than 100 boxes of plant-based ingredients to around 100 vulnerable families spread across the most isolated and inaccessible villages in the Rif mountains.
The campaign, which aims to continue for the next twelve months, has decided to take this approach to humanitarian aid not only because plant foods are an essential element of Rif culture, but above all because it intends that its help be nothing more than a transitory step in a local process of building self-sufficiency and food sovereignty in which the geographical situation does not condemn the populations to misery.
Initiatives like this show that it is possible to carry out transversal actions that benefit people as well as animals and the planet. They also show that, many times, the populations of the ‘global South’ have much to teach us in terms of food and in many other aspects, which are normally forgotten. And finally, they show how young people are capable of mobilizing, from both sides of the Strait, to carry out projects with impact.