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Using Spatial Analysis to Help Manage Conflict

By Marta Debolini

Peri-urban areas are particularly vulnerable to land use conflicts due to their geographic and socio-economic characteristics: They are transitional zones in transforming societies, where various economic activities associated with each urban setting try to co-exist. In this context, peri-urban agriculture plays a key role for the multiplicity and diversity of stakeholders providing environmental and economic services to urban cities. The environment-related functions assume a particular importance in this context. Urban and peri-urban agriculture can play a relevant role in maintaining soil fertility, biodiversity, and in protecting water quality, in an especially vulnerable environment characterized by a lack of urban and rural planning and programming.

The city of Mekes, in central Morocco, is known for its wealth and its agricultural character as a “garden city” due mainly to the temperate climatic conditions and historic agrarian economy. There have been major demographic changes in the urban population during the last century: the population grew 5.6 times between 1912 and 1956. This trend, attributed largely to the combined effects of the natural population increase and especially the rural exodus, maintained an average annual rate of roughly 3% until 1982 and 2.33% between 1982 and 1994. By 2004, the total population was estimated at 560,000 inhabitants. The urbanization rate passed from 51% in 1994 to 57% in 2006. Moreover, the land tenure system is a relevant issue in the land use conflict management. The population growth has not been matched by equal changes in the land management system.

This map shows the identified areas of potential conflict. It shows that the risk is located mainly in the east-southern part of the peri-urban area of Meknes, where agricultural activities are widespread and where agro-pedoclimatic conditions are especially favorable for agricultural production. But in the last few years, this has been also one of the areas of development in terms of urbanization and industrialization.

In order to encourage a participatory planning process under these transitionary conditions, I created a spatial representation of the potential conflict in the peri-urban area of Meknes. The synthetic map was developed around the main drivers of the land conflict origin, such as the proximity of the city, the water availability and the land tenure. The mapping also considered the main urbanization axes around the city. The applied methodology put together remote sensing and typical GIS tools with the information obtained from the farmers’ interviews and their vision on the agricultural systems innovation.

In Morocco there are five main typologies of land tenures (melk or private property, State property, Collective property, guich or State property granted in use to military servant, habou or religious lands), ranging from the standard private property to the collective properties, or the lands belonging to the mosque or religious authorities. The peri-urban landscape around Meknes is particularly characterized by the relevant presence of the agrarian reform cooperative, created after 1972 from the confiscation of ex-colonial possessions. From 2000 the Moroccan king Mohammed VI initiated the liberalization of these structures, progressively passing land property from the collective the private tenure. In many cases, this reform has meant the beginning of a process of agricultural innovation, but in many others it kicked off a process of uncontrolled and often irregular speculation. Most of the ex-collective lands have been acquired from big national holdings with the official aim of housing developments.

The issue of illegality and corruption is in a sense stimulated, or at least stressed, by the very high price of the land in Morocco. Prices increased exponentially in the last 10 years with a rapid disparity between the value of agricultural and housing plots. The 10-fold difference in land prices makes it increasingly impossible for small farmers to compete and maintain their plots. In fact, interviews with the farmer cooperative showed that the only way for farmers to recover their capital costs is to sell their land; they don’t see agricultural production as a sustaining income. This also starts a problematic cycle where selling land to generate cash for investing on the farm results in greater urbanization around the farm parcel, eventually pressuring the farmer to transition away from agricultural production to more profitable urbanization. This was one of the main drivers in the observed conflicts.

Urban development projects, like funding for an industrialized dairy plant in the south-eastern region in April 2012, show that there is a high interest in developing the agricultural production of this area. Yet these projects focus on an industrial typology of agriculture and not on the small farmers that are predominant in the region and reflective of the traditional land holding and land use patterns. In these transition conditions, I have mapped the variables that represent risks for effective development and areas at higher risk for conflict between the emerging urbanization and traditional small farmer land use patterns.

For this reason the problem should be considered as a planning problem: without integrated land planning that combines urban development control and economic development to support the small framer’s transition in production mechanisms it is impossible for small peri-urban farmers to survive, and land use conflicts are more and more frequent in these transition zones.


Marta Debolini is a post-doctoral research fellow for the Fund for Global Environment and Conflict Resolution at the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University.This posting is adapted from her research paper titled, “Land management and land use conflict resolution in peri-urban areas:a geo-agronomic perspective.” This research project was undertaken with the generous support of the Global Fund for Environment and Conflict Resolution at the Center for International Conflict Resolution (CICR) at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). The project has been completed in collaboration with the international research program DAUME (Durabilité des Agricultures Urbaines en Mediterranée).

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