Five sustainability scholars from Lund University, Sweden, on a rooftop terrace in Rabat, Morocco. Below us the city unfolds. The ancient medina performing its ancient medina-ness: winding alleys, torn mosaic stairs and arcades, market stands parading rows of bright colors, smells of grilled meat and scented oil. Walls lined with elderly men drinking thick black coffee, playing backgammon. Then the futuristic tram floating majestically along the broad avenues dreamed up by the French during the years of protectorate. Then the Atlantic. Then the world.
Fieldwork, while often a romanticized and problematic notion (what is the field anyway?, etc.), is one of the reasons that researchers, not least those engaged in matters of sustainability, fly across the world more than most other people. In this case, we are here to explore the political ecology of solar power initiatives in Morocco. We are trying to follow the webs of power and politics, to figure out whose interests materialize in recent projects, who benefits and who pays with money, land, labor. We move through the city, unpacking laptops and notebooks in modest activist headquarters and the glossy offices of investment banks. As foreign researchers we have access to all kinds of spaces. Our translator speaks six languages. While we travel smoothly across her country, she would only be able to visit us with a formal invitation and special permission, involving tedious and humiliating bureaucratic struggles.
I am utterly impressed by the train stations. On the platforms by the tracks benches are grouped together under the shades of trees. Welcoming spaces for waiting and people-watching. From Rabat to Marrakech I follow the landscape through the window. Soft hills, a thin veil of green over red dryness. We continue our journey in a rented car across the Atlas Mountains. The snow-crested peaks are draped in mist, which dissolves as we pass Tichka, slightly above 2200 meters above sea level. The winding road turns downward until we reach Ouarzazate, a town between the mountains and the desert. Fifty-two days from Timbuktu on camel back, I learn – an exotic way of counting distance and time, when you are used to the inherently absurd possibility of hopping on a plane and getting anywhere in the world within 30 hours.
The dramatic landscape is a popular site for movie shootings: Asterix and Obelix, Gladiator, Game of Thrones, our interlocutor recites. We visit a village with small-scale photovoltaic solar panels, managed by a cooperative and used to pump water out of the ground to irrigate olive and saffron plantations. The bottom-up, small-scale character of this arrangement stands in contrast to one of the main destinations of our trip: a large solar power plant under construction, just outside of Ouarzazate. This plant is part of a larger initiative towards renewable energy incited by the Moroccan government, funded through investment banks and development agencies, and constructed by a Saudi Arabian firm. It gathers a wide range of dreams and expectations: energy independence for Morocco; infrastructure and employment opportunities for local communities; divestment from fossil fuels. After leaving our passports at the gates we are handed helmets and boots and escorted through the construction site. The place is spectacular. Thousands of vaulted mirrors spread out across the land, reflecting the bright sun. Walking among these mirrors feels like being in a sci-fi movie. Futuristic and eerie. When finished, the size of the plant will equal that of Paris. Back by the gates, I see busloads of men from Ouarzazate and nearby communities, shipped to the site to carry out construction work. After our visit to the plant we drive to the nearest village where people are gathered in the school to meet us. They talk about their poverty, voicing the pain of seeing great drams of the future materialize next to their grazing lands without any improvements to their life conditions. For the villagers the intense brightness of the mirrors accentuates their own remoteness.
Who are we, researchers from Lund, in all this? We nod solemnly and take notes as we listen to the villagers. We sip sweet Moroccan tea with the villagers in the classroom. We pose for group pictures in helmets in front of the grandiose mirrors of the solar plant. Always armed with laptops, cameras and voice recorders. Always with easy access to the near and the far.
All the things I read about before we left – the abundant sunshine, the remote villages, the solar power plant out on the dry plains – materialize here, seep through me. I feel the sun burning my skin. I sense the sublime grandeur of the mirrors. I hear the desperation in the villagers’ voices. This is what fieldwork does: it embodies. I am very aware about the layers of privilege that play out here. Yet: I learn more with my skin and feet and eyes than my computer screen would ever be able to teach me.