Ethnobotany in the High Atlas – Evolving Indigenous Amazigh Landscapes in Morocco by Elspeth Mathau

*This footage is from Elspeth Master’s fieldwork, conducted at the University of Kent, Canterbury England in the School of Anthropology and Conservation. Below is her film and photo essay. Enjoy!

The High Atlas Mountains are a vast biocultural landscape and a biodiversity hotspot. They have been shaped over the millennia through human-nature interactions in agropastoral and communal land management systems of indigenous Amazigh communities. Snow melt from the range peaks cascade down into the high pastures, mountain slopes, small prairies, farmland irrigation, and transhumance plainlands, nourishing the plants and providing water to the rural communities.

Biodiversity Hotspot

Morocco’s substantial topographic and climatic variation foster great biodiversity, one of the most diverse regions for flora in the Mediterranean. Conditions in the High Atlas Mountains have created high biodiversity and plant endemism with 65% of endemic Moroccan flora residing in the range, including 250 rare species. 

Agriculture and Fodder

Animal agriculture through transhumance has been a key biocultural practice in shaping the landscape and sustaining agro-pastoral systems in mountains of the Maghreb from at least 5000 BCE. Access and knowledge fodder plants is essential in continuation of traditional livelihoods in many rural agricultural and pastoral communities. High Atlas Amazigh rely on a combination of wild and cultivated fodder ‘touga’ for their animals. Their use, cultivation, sourcing, and conservation are foundational daily biocultural practices carried out predominantly by women, creating direct connections between humans and the landscape.  

Challenges to livelihoods

As Amazigh communities modernize and face climate change, they are challenged with how to preserve and practice their biocultural traditions and continue life in the High Atlas. Climatic shifts in the High Atlas are intensifying drought, ecological degradation, desertification, and unpredictable weather and flooding events. Economic and social change through agricultural and infrastructure developments have also significantly impacted plant access. The resultant water scarcity, over harvesting, and land-use conflict, have severely decreased wild plant abundance and crops. 

Adaptive Ecologies- Community led Conservation and Transformation

Amazigh communities are responding to the ecologic and development changes by altering environmental management strategies including harvesting practices, applying transhumance traditions, diversifying their livelihoods and crops, and maintaining community resource, labour, and seed sharing networks to sustain their mountain subsistence. Their persistence is resistance, allowing a continuation of cultural heritage, autonomy, traditional foodways, and community led conservation of local biodiversity. 

For more photos and my fieldwork journal visit

Footnotes All photos were taken by and are the property of Elspeth Mathau, from her Masters Research Fieldwork with the Global Diversity Foundation while at the University of Kent, U.K. Ethnobotany Programme. 


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