The Atlas mountain range contains large quantities of fossils, particularly the regions of Khouribga, Erfoud, Alnif, Oued Zem and Hamada Kem-Kem. Traditionally, local populations have exploited these resources, selling ancient fossils to tourists and collectors. This provides a source of income to people in marginalised areas, including workers in phosphate mines who would occasionally sell their finds to complement their wages.
Since the 2000s, however, this activity has transformed into a structured and lucrative business. Local workers carrying out the excavations sell the fossils to wholesalers, who resell them to exporters. The fossils end up in museums, university research centres and private collections, mainly in Europe and North America. An investigation from French newspaper Le Monde published in August 2018 found that exporters earn up to US$100 000 per year.
Although archaeological excavations must in principle be authorised by the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Sustainable Development, Morocco allows artisanal mining by local populations. However, the export of ‘objects of anthological or archaeological interest’ is prohibited by law. How then do Morocco’s rare fossils end up in auctions as far afield as Paris or Mexico City?
Morocco is a signatory to the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970, but domestic legislation is far too weak. ‘The export of fossils dates is explicitly prohibited by a ministerial order from 1994, but this is insufficient and not applied. Control authorities must be complicit, because such goods should not pass through customs,’ explained an academic, who requested anonymity.
While fossil trafficking clearly endangers Morocco's palaeontological heritage, but possibly also poses a threat to the country's development and security. The existence of an illegal organised system implies the exploitation of people living in marginalised regions, who ultimately only derive limited income from it. On the other hand, this trade points to loopholes in the export control system, which raises questions about what other kinds of trafficking might be occurring.
Moroccan civil society is calling for more comprehensive legislation to regulate the excavation, sale and export of fossils. If the trade were regulated, it might allow local people to earn stable incomes, rather than having to depend on traffickers who currently act with total impunity.
In early January 2019, Morocco’s Ministry of Energy, Mines and Sustainable Development published a draft decree that addresses the need for the trade in fossils to be regulated. The document proposes that three categories of fossils be established: unique specimens that can be loaned for scientific purposes; quota-regulated specimens that would be subject to ministerial authorisation for export; and ‘regular’ fossils, which can be extracted, sold and exported without prior authorisation.
While this new legislation is a good step forward, it will need to be backed by training for law enforcement agents, including on how to detect and identify fossils; and its implementation should be well governed and monitored by the relevant authorities.
Jihane Ben Yahia, ENACT Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – North Africa, ISS