By Celia Heudebourg
CASABLANCA, Morocco – Saad Abid’s phone rings constantly. In the space of an hour, he answers five calls, juggles plans with colleagues and texts extensively, keeping everyone clued in on happenings he has just been informed of. He has the urgency of a trader and the diplomacy of a politician, but his washed out jeans, bright orange G-Shock watch, and palm tree-printed messenger bag paint a different picture of the nature of his work: environmental activism.
“I have a vision, a strategy and I want to apply it. That’s it,” Abid said. “I see myself as a normal citizen who wants to make his country better.”
An ambassador for the international environmental COP22 summit currently underway in Marrakesh, Abid, 34, wants to clean up his country’s beaches and coastal waterfronts. He is not receiving support from his government however, so he is using social media and his surfing past to reach his goal.
Abid is the founder and president of Association Bahri, a Moroccan NGO which carries out projects aimed at protecting coastal flora and educating locals about pollution. During his popular beach cleanup events, one of which broke a national attendance record in 2015, kids are encouraged to learn about littering while playing sports and taking surfing classes. The Association has also helped install trash bins and employed homeless people to collect garbage along Casablanca’s beach.
Morocco’s lack of robust recycling and waste management systems have taken a serious toll on the country’s economy. In 2015, the assistant minister in charge of the environment estimated that Morocco’s opportunity cost for waste pollution was four percent of its GDP (approximately $4.5 billion). In a report published in September, the World Health Organization concluded that three million Moroccans died prematurely because of air pollution in 2012, further putting pressure on the government to address the country’s pollution problem.
Though the statistics are impressive, the inspiration for Association Bahri came from a more personal place: Abid’s passion for surfing. As a former national champion and lifelong fan of the sport, Abid came back to Morocco from Canada, where he had been studying management at Concordia University, because the cold weather did not suit his lifestyle.
However, he was shocked to see how polluted the ocean had become.
“It’s really not fun to surf in the middle of trash,” Abid said. “In the water, when you paddle, you get plastic, and dead fish, and tampons on your hands. A lot of bad things that are not supposed to be there.”
A July ban on one-time use plastic bags has been helping the country lessen its ecological footprint, however other practices, such as throwing out used cooking oil, batteries and wrappers are still heavily affecting Morocco’s coastline.
Inspired by a recent invitation from Secretary of State John Kerry for the “Our Ocean” conference in Washington, Abid now wants to continue the protection of Morocco’s coastline by creating small satellites of the NGO in various cities up and down the coast. Only when this is accomplished, can he envision the association meeting his larger goal of working internationally.
But, Abid is noticing a lack of governmental support for NGOs like his in the fight for a greener, cleaner Morocco.
Morocco’s Parliament adopted the 81-12 law in 2015, which legally protects the 3,500 kilometers of coastline and its surrounding land. But, Abid said the law is not applied in everyday life.
An environmental police force was started in several cities, but the resources devoted to this initiative have been negligible. In Casablanca, Morocco’s most populous city, there are a total of four environmental police officers. In Rabat, the capital, there are just two.
“When you hear the numbers, you want to laugh, because it’s completely stupid. They can’t do anything,” Abid said.
Abid has also struggled getting access to COP21 and COP22, because of the government.
Last year, when Abid’s NGO was was left out of the team selected to represent the Moroccan civil society at the COP21 in Paris, he had to find other ways to make it to the environmental event of the year. Eventually he secured a spot as a VIP after contacting the Moroccan Minister of the Environment. Though he attended, Abid’s NGO had to remain absent.
“Knowing, with all the modesty in the world, that we consider ourselves to be one of the best NGOs regarding oceans, we didn’t find it normal to not be contacted,” Abid said.
Yet, the biggest struggle Abid faces right now isn’t government support, but people’s unwillingness to adopt new habits.
“There is no will from the citizens right now to change their mentality regarding the environment,” Abid said. “It’s a huge challenge. Sometimes when you talk to someone who is littering and you ask them ‘Why are you littering?’ They tell you, ‘do you come from the United States or Europe? This is only Morocco!’ They don’t value their country.”
Abid has taken to social media to try to appeal to young Moroccans and gather a following for his cause. He carefully curates the Youtube videos he publishes and images he posts with help from a web designer and a digital manager. Pictures of him surfing and snowboarding in different parts of the country seek to highlight Morocco’s natural beauty and prove to viewers that it is worth maintaining.
“When you talk about my surfing image and also how I make videos just to promote Morocco and Morocco’s image, I think that that helps really vehiculate the real message,” Abid said.
Abid currently has 18,000 followers on Instagram and some of his YouTube videos have gone viral, totaling over three million cumulative views.
When asked if he ever gets discouraged by the uphill battle he is facing, his answer is simple.
“I have Canadian citizenship, so I can go anytime in Canada and live well there and have a job. But, I wanted to come back here. I make less money, I have more problems with adapting to the mentality but inside me, I feel like I have a duty to participate in the change of this country. That’s it.”