I recently visited Morocco to see and experience a project we have been supporting and helped pioneer over the last four years.
Mules are central to life in the deep steep valleys of the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Their strength, sure-footedness and ability to survive through changing seasons of work have made them indispensible. But life is changing for people and mules alike.
Tourism is one of the more powerful forces changing traditional Amazight (Berber) life in the mountains from subsistence towards a money economy. Alongside their more traditional work carrying firewood, water, fodder, home supplies, agricultural produce (including delicious seasonal fruits and nuts), manure, building materials, other livestock, their owners, and in the case of nomads, entire homes and ways of life, mules now support the tourist trekking industry, carrying all the tents, food, cooking equipment and personal possessions throughout treks that can last for up to two weeks.
Each tourist trek is led by a guide, and each official guide has been trained by the Guide School (Centre de Formation aux Métiers de Montagnes - CFAMM) at Tabant in the Central High Atlas. Until recently the CFAMM Curriculum, though it covered every other aspect of the trek, did not include anything about mules.
However five years ago, Glen Cousquer, a UK vet and International Mountain Leader (IML), approached the Guide School to include a module about mules. He also approached The Donkey Sanctuary for support. Glen’s background in outdoor education and experiential learning, his interest in animal welfare, and his belief in education as a tool for change, resonated with my own beliefs and aspirations for The Donkey Sanctuary’s international work going forward. As a result, and with a small amount of financial support from The Donkey Sanctuary, Glen has been teaching this module for the last four years.
In the first year the module, with its emphasis on an invisible member of the trekking team and new experiential approach to learning, met mainly with scepticism and was only embraced by a small minority. Now it has become a mainstay of the curriculum. As Monsieur Zouhair, Director of CFAMM, told me, Glen’s professionalism, energy, and his introduction of approaches to learning taken from outdoor education, have brought great improvements to the school. This was repeated to me over my short journey through the mountains and back down to Marrakesh as we bumped into a succession of working guides from each of the last four years of the programme.
The school year culminates in a 300 km two week traverse of the high Atlas. I joined this year’s trek for the last, shortest and easiest day and was completely wiped out - so this is a tough journey for students, teachers and mules alike. As is commonly the case across the mountain tourism industry, mule welfare has been considered the preserve of the muleteer (mule owner). This represents a failure on the part of key decision makers (eg tour agencies and others) to recognise the importance of their actions and decisions on the mules’ welfare.
Prior to Glen’s initiative, no importance was given to mule welfare during the trek. Sadly this commonly resulted in unfit mules joining the trek and generalised over-loading - all leading to a range of other welfare problems including serious wounds and broken limbs and feet. Now however the number of mules has been increased, the average load decreased, and the school is supporting Glen when a mule is examined and declared unfit for work. During the trek students are actively involved in all aspects of mule care and good packing practice. Experiential learning requires that they inspect the mules throughout the trek and solve problems together with the muleteers. Increasingly most muleteers are becoming receptive to these ideas and this year we gave out two prizes to muleteers to reward good practice and a further two to provide encouragement.
The small investment of Donkey Sanctuary money in this project is helping us to take forward our vision of a ‘worldwide network for donkey and mule welfare’ into Morocco. The project is working with SPANA Maroc (who provide an independent local assessment of mule health and welfare), SPANA UK, CFAMM, the emerging Guide and muleteer associations, and Edinburgh University, where Glen is based. Because the project is based actively within the local High Atlas communities, it can collaborate with social and environmental community-based projects (such as ‘Montagne Propre’). These attract other forms of funding and lead to animal welfare standards embedded alongside humanitarian standards at a local level.
Going beyond Morocco, this project is spearheading a drive to get recognition for expedition animals worldwide. As Glen said: ‘In the early days porters and sherpas were considered more or less dispensable, but nowadays have their welfare closely protected (see
Look out for future blogs from Glen over the next few years!
2012 Responsibilities of Guides to Expedition Pack Animals in Annals of Tourism Research
2011 Report of Wounds Year 1 in Worldwide Wounds Web Journal
2011 Last Straw in Summit Magazine, British Mountaineering Council