The new gold diggers

Asilah, Morocco, (October 2012)

Est. reading time: 2 minutes

Autumn 2012, a beach in Asilah, a little coastal town in northern Morocco; As I pressed the shutter button someone walked up the hill in my direction and started swearing at me in Arabic loudly, signalling that I should hand over the camera. What was the problem? What were these people digging for?

It took me two years to find the answer: Sand is the “new environmental time bomb”, as a recent movie shows. Together with gravel, sand holds the largest share of solid material extracted world wide. Sand is processed in numerous products we use every day such as glass, detergents, cosmetics and even in microchips. However, the global construction boom has made sand one of the most important raw materials in the world. Desert sand isn’t suitable for the production of cement, so digging focuses on  coastal areas. Morocco is one of the hotspots for this exploitation. More than half of the sand is thereby extracted illegally: “illegal” since the Moroccan government included the theft of sand into article 517 of their criminal code in 2011. The penalty ranges from a fine of 500 Dirham (= 45 Euro) per cubic meter of sand to five years in prison. As a consequence of the huge extraction whole beaches are slowly disappearing in the North African country, supposedly for the benefit of the tourism industry. „Until today 40 to 45 percent of the sand has been stolen. This is a huge amount and a real environmental fiasco,” Othmane Mernissi,  president of the Moroccan Association of Granulate Manufacturers said, in the documentary.

But do the men of Asilah have an alternative? And what must this beach have looked like ten years ago?

I’m a cultural anthropologist based in Munich. I’m conducting research in Morocco on migration, borders and the meaning of love and marriage in this context.


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  1. Your picture is on the beach below my house in Asilah. Most sand thieves in Asilah are getting money for drugs. One day I went wildly cray trying to stop them. I beat the horse pulling the cart with my broom, tried to empty a bag of wet sand, which I couldn’t even turn over, because it was so heavy.

    One of the diggers came over to me and said very quietly,” Give me 40 dirhams ($4) and we’ll stop.” He was Rahama’s son, a known junkie from the neighborhood. I held them off for only 2 hours.

    When my friend, Mustafa, heard what I had done, he became very grave. “You nust apologize,” he said. “To whom,” I asked. The entire neighborhoodThe next day, I went door to door, apologizing. all ologies were accepted, except for Rahama. “Allah will excuse you,” she said.

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  2. mm

    Hi Jan, I didn’t really get the point of your comment. I’m having a hard time believing that it’s mostly “known junkies”. I’d be careful with assertions that you’re not able to proof! I also wouldn’t call them “sand thieves” by the way, since this is the official label the state gives them. From whom are they stealing? They are only part of a shadow economy from which the state doesn’t profit (taxes, etc.). Are (homeless) people in Europe who collect bottles from trash bins stealing them from recycle companies?

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