Perma Atlas, an interview!
An interview with Perma Atlas
On an early and fresh Tuesday morning in the neighbourhood Kinkenbuurt in Amsterdam, the hospitality of Latifa Oumlil, founder of Perma Atlas, and Khadya Alahane-Oumlil, becomes immediately clear. With two big and sincerely smiles we are being welcomed and the subject of the conservation starts with how grateful they are for what we are doing for their organisation. With a cup of coffee in our hands, we start our interview, which actually felt from the beginning as a conversation between friends, rather than two students and two members of an organisation.
When we first ask for a short explanation about what kind of work Perma Atlas does, and what the motivation was behind it all, a smile breaks out on their faces. The question is barely read out loud before we are being taken in a touching and movable story; something that really shows how much the organisation means for both of them. Latifa and Khadya are both from the south of Morocco, the place where Perma Atlas mainly focuses on. Latifa went back every year to this place, but the beautiful green mountains where she grew up slightly changed in more of a sad bald collection of mountains. Back in 2012, when she visited a friend of hers in the north of Morocco, where the same problem occurred, Latifa witnessed that her friend had bought a piece of land to let it turn green again. This is when she got inspired to start doing the work she does nowadays. She could be able to do this as well?
And this is how in 2014 she sat around the table with the locals to tell them that it could be better than irrigation channels they were using right now, which had to be dug up time after time. “They looked at me as if I was mad” tells Latifa laughing. “They told me that Allah decided everything, they had no influence at all. Then I got a little mad, I didn’t understand how they could argue this. I told them that Allah gave them brains so they could make a change”. The locals were not convinced, but when a tremendous flood occurred in November, which caused houses to be damaged and the ground to be even less fertile, they went to sit around the table for another time. The population, at that moment with a feeling of powerlessness and frightened that this was the end of their village, got confidence in Latifa and her organisation, especially after she held a fundraising event in the Netherlands and trucks (loaded with supplies) drove in the village.
After winning the confidence of the locals it was time for Latifa to take it to the next level. Once she had returned to the Netherlands she was dedicated to finding a sustainable and long term solution to “safe” the valley. This was harder than expected. A Moroccan permaculture-specialist told her that she should start from the top and that was not an easy task. 2100 meters up and with 1.5 hectares from the government was where Perma Atlas could work with. In the meantime, the locals started to become less active. “It was like they thought I was going to arrange everything and there was a bottomless money jar. That was not the case”. And this is how the training got started, where they educate the locals into perma-culture specialists and where they cooperate together towards a fertile ground.
“And here we are two and a half years later. The 1.5 hectares is finished and the organisation of 4 people in the Netherlands has grown to 9 people here and a group of 35 young people in the High Atlas.” So far they are satisfied with the result, but that doesn’t say the road to get there was without trouble. Receiving funds in the Netherlands was problematic in the beginning because it is hard for people in the Netherlands to imagine what happens in areas so far from home according to Latifa and Khadya. In the High Atlas, they had to beat obstacles. “It was very hard to convince the boys in Morocco that they actually could make a change to their situation where they were currently living in” Latifa explains. Yet they answer this question with pride and it is clear that they had overcome these obstacles and the organisation has turned out to be a success.
Remarkable about this organisation is that they chose for a bottom-up structure and the focus they put on permaculture. For that first thing, Latifa has a simple metaphor: “It is actually like a fish on a fishing rod. The fishing rod gives them self-reliance and is a sustainable solution as well. She adds to this that the population learned a lot throughout this project. “They went from a day-to-day mentality to a life with an agenda, budget, and serious planning”. The permaculture is very important according to Perma Atlas because the collective goal was taken into account and is based on a Berbian method, in other words, the traditional way of agriculture in the High Atlas. Additionally, this strategy makes sure the old generation, who grew up with the Berbian method, learns to cooperate with the younger generation, who is mainly focussed on the changing society and had the ambition to move to the bigger cities.
As great as all of this seems, they are both convinced that this is by far not the end.
“This is not good enough yet” Latifa tels while Khady nods. When we ask about their ambitions for the future, an ambitious look appears in Latifa’s eyes. “In 5 years we want to have at least 1 or 2 villages”. Even this is not enough, because the end goal is to let everybody take advantage of the river which flows through the mountains while maintaining the river to follow its path. Ambitious, but if there is anyone who can do this it is Latifa, who has been talking so passionately about her project throughout the whole interview, making it very hard to believe the locals even hesitated for a moment to give her the freedom for her plans.
The money of our study association will be put into a good place if anyone is still doubting it after reading the passionate answers of Latifa and Khadya. The ambition is to make a grazing system to maintain the fertility of the land. This project still has to start, but it becomes clear that the women in the population have to be involved in this as well. This is something else that means a lot to Latifa; emancipation of women.
About the question of what their advice is for people who want to make a change themselves, they have to think for a moment. It is hard to point out one thing which makes it possible to change something sustainably. In the end, they come to the conclusion: “Start with yourself and the change will reach out to others eventually. Be open for cooperation and exchanging information and everything will be alright”. This quote summarizes the concept of Perma Atlas exactly. It started with an ambitious woman with a big idea, which was realised by a flowing cooperation between parties with different backgrounds.
- Symke Nieboer and Valerie de Rijk
(Translated to English by Koen ten Dam)