By Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, CNRS-Prodig, Geopium

Hashish from kif/beldia and Critical cannabis in the Ketama area, Rif region, Morocco. Source: Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy - www.geopium.org
Morocco has reportedly been one the world’s leading hashish producers since the 1980s, when large-scale production really developed in the country’s northern Rif region where cannabis cultivation has long been tolerated.

During the last decade, cannabis cultivation in the Rif has undergone its most significant evolution since the hashish industry emerged in the 1960s. Much of the local kif cannabis variety (a landrace) has been rapidly supplanted by modern hybrids with much larger resin yields and much higher potency that can produce larger quantities of a more potent hashish. As a result, it is likely that the reported two-third decline in cannabis cultivation that started in the mid-2000s due to increased enforcement pressures was at least partially compensated for by increased yields.

Indeed, starting in the late 2000s, Morocco’s cannabis industry has adapted to local pressure and international competition (import substitution in Europe) by transforming itself through the use of high-yielding varieties of cannabis, modern cultivation practices, and modern hashish production techniques, with the result that more potent and varied cannabis derivatives are now being produced.

While the adoption of such high-yielding varieties has most likely proven economically beneficial for local producers, at least by making the new Moroccan hashish more attractive and exportable, the massive switch from mostly-rainfed kif to systematically-irrigated hybrids has increased the burden on the region's limited water resources. Faced with an unregulated and unfettered use of underground water by the modernised cannabis industry and with a prolonged nationwide drought that has sparked social unrest since 2015, the Moroccan authorities have reportedly chosen to forbid the sowing of the thirsty hybrids during the 2020 season.

In the meantime, according to discussions held with farmers in the Rif, the confinement measures and border closures provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic (including in Morocco) seriously disrupted the import of hybrid seeds sourced annually mainly in Spain and the Netherlands. As a result, the sowing of hybrid seeds has been largely compromised and most Moroccan cannabis cultivators had to resort to growing kif, the Moroccan cannabis landrace that is by definition best suited to its natural environment, especially considering the increasing scarcity of water resources. It is likely, however, that some farmers will have resorted to sowing seeds of hybrids pollinated by nearby kif plants even if that implied reduced yields.

Terrace cultivation of cannabis (mostly Critical strain) in the Rif region, near Ketama, Morocco. Source: Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy - www.geopium.org
Yet, forbidding the cultivation of hybrids bears no guarantee of a lesser use of irrigation since much higher yields can be obtained with irrigated kif than with rainfed kif. The 2020 crop might well prove financially interesting as expensive hybrid seeds will have been replaced by free kif seeds obtained from past harvests, as irrigation systems set up for hybrids can be used to increase kif yields, and as the hashish produced from the kif landrace was already fetching higher prices in the past seasons.

The disruption caused by the pandemic associated to the drought-related restrictions on hybrid cultivation may have a silver lining since the region’s water resources are too scarce to allow large-scale hybrids cultivation in the long term. Also, the large switch from kif to hybrids could thwart opportunities by Moroccan farmers to take advantage of the intrinsic and added values of their terroir, their landrace, and their traditional production techniques (manual dry sift). Especially in a market already saturated with cannabis products produced from hybrids.

The future of the Rif region depends largely on the future of the cannabis industry as cannabis is one of its rare profitable cash crops. And the future of the cannabis industry in the Rif depends both on urgent natural resources conservation practices (especially soil and water) and on the development of a high-quality craft cannabis crop that will be distinctive in a fast-growing and competitive world market where both potent modern hybrids and rare landraces are big trends.

The future of the Rif and that of its cannabis industry are closely linked and can be promising provided that an emphasis is put in place, on terroir, or on what has been termed the “taste of place” in English. Both the pandemic and the drought should be taken as opportunities for the Rif to revive its pre-intensive and hybrid-focused agriculture: by valuing and preserving its distinctive geographic and historical features, its low-impact farming practices (little irrigation and chemical inputs), the originality and typicality of its hashish, as well as its quality.

This can be achieved by preserving the Rif’s landrace as only the kif variety is adapted to the harsh soil and climatic conditions of the Rif region: by preserving the kif, one can preserve the Rif and vice-versa.

In the end, only legal regulation will make the necessary environmental and agricultural regulations possible by recognising the Rif as a cannabis terroir, where hashish produced according to organic and fairer-trade standards is awarded a protected designation of origin with added value in an increasingly competitive global cannabis market