‘Tying the Natives to the Soil’: Securitized Histories of Land Use Policy in Colonial Morocco

Asmaa Elgamal, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The colonial histories of contemporary land development policies across the global South have long been recognized. In the Maghreb, environmental historians have traced land expropriations, changes in tenure, and restrictions on traditional land uses to erroneous narratives which portrayed the North African landscape as a region desertified by the ‘barbaric’ practices of Arab nomadic communities. While the economic motivations behind colonial land practices are widely recognized, less understood are the links between land policy and the security objectives of colonial institutions. Such an understanding is especially important when one considers the prominent role often played by military administrators in the formulation of policy. This paper suggests that a historicized understanding of contemporary development policy requires an investigation of a set of “security dilemmas” centered around the relationship between humans and nature. In particular, it explores how land use policy under the French protectorate in Morocco was shaped by the security objectives of French colonial administrators. Through an analysis of official reports, training manuals, correspondence, and personal memoirs, it traces the installment of water infrastructure and irrigation networks as tools through which land use policy was shaped by the dilemma of “tying the natives to the soil.” This strategic military objective was animated by ethnicized and spatialized imaginaries of security that projected a hostility towards nomadic pastoralism and transhumant communities. The paper contributes to a number of contemporary debates in development, planning, and security studies. First, it highlights security dilemmas as an essential component of historicizing development. Second, through a close reading of the individual histories of colonial administrators, it brings a more agentic lens to understanding how spatialized geographies of security are constructed and sustained. Finally, it builds on the turn within planning studies towards incorporating rural perspectives as a means to understand how rural and urban histories are co-constituted.

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 Presented in Session 56. Expert and Local Knowledge in Land Use