Biodiversity Network seminar: Zaatar and zaitra: a parable of disruption and rewilding in Moroccan cultural landscapes

Followed by drinks. All welcome

Conservation of plants in the Mediterranean is entangled in a broader reality of cultural landscapes, interspecies relationships and human agency. Moroccan species of oregano and thyme, generally classified as zaatar or zaitra in local Arabic (or azakounni and tazakounnit in Amazigh) are an excellent example. These prominent aromatic plants typically occupy limey and rocky soils and are common in a range of transformed habitats – including what Anna Tsing controversially calls ‘blasted landscapes’ – such as uncultivated fields, pastures and scrubland in plateaus and mountains, all buffeted by climate and social change. Exemplifying an expanding interest in interspecies relationships, plant ecologists have shown that thyme facilitates the growth of associated plants through leaching of water-soluble compounds, dropping leaf litter and increasing soil nitrogen and organic matter. People participate in this process by creating spaces favourable to the growth of wild oregano and thyme, harvesting them for domestic use and sale, as well as cultivating and eventually domesticating preferred species. In turn, use of zaatar and zaitra in cuisine and traditional medicine has a widely reported beneficial impact on human health because of their antifungal, antioxidant, antimicrobial, antispasmodic and other properties.

Though the lens of ethnobotany, we are becoming increasingly conscious of the complex interrelationships between people and plants. Can these insights support our efforts to ensure the survival of particular species, such as Thymus satureioides, an endemic species restricted to the High Atlas, and Origanum compactum, which is found in the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa? Even more challenging, how can we succeed in the face of climate change, rural exodus and the fickle pressure of market demand? It is increasingly evident that we must be disruptive in thought and practice. We can take a cue from the American business magazine Forbes, which defines disruption as a kind of innovation that “displaces an existing market, industry, or technology and produces something new and more efficient and worthwhile. It is at once destructive and creative.” One fundamental question is whether our disruption is seeking conservation, which “often looks to the past” in the words of environmental journalist George Monbiot, or rewilding that he says “looks to the future”.

Our response, which is embedded in a broader initiative on cultural landscape management in the Moroccan High Atlas, is to first deepen our understanding of useful plants through ecological, ethnographic and ethnobotanical research conducted in a participatory framework. This is revealing the complex web of relationships in which zaatar and zaitra – and many other plant species – participate. We then engage in practical action, which includes growing Thymus satureioides, Origanum compactum and other economic, endemic and endangered species in community nurseries, distributing them to local people who tend cultural landscapes and searching for local niche markets that are capable of transforming commercialization to support community livelihoods. The result we seek is an innovative rewilding of local economies and environments to displace the current status quo that is unsustainable for people, plants and planet, and to replace it with an agroecology of mind and matter that copes with our changed climates, depleted soils and compromised markets.

The allegorical journey with zaatar and zaitra compels us to explore contemporary transdisciplinary research in a new perspective, challenging us to combine conventional biodiversity research with cutting edge social science perspectives, explore the political nature of our endeavour and even delve deeply into our own personal stories.