Exploring and protecting

A young Moroccan speleologist is preserving biodiversity in his home country and creating income opportunities. This is the story of somebody with a long-term vision – even in (and especially in) the COVID-19 crisis.

Claudia Altmann

With his newly founded company, Younes El Kassmi is aiming high – by taking his guests deep underground. El Kassmi is a speleologist – an expert in the study of caves – and keen to share his passion for the subterranean wonders of his home in Morocco’s Tazzeka National Park in the Middle Atlas mountain range. This young entrepreneur is preserving nature while creating jobs opportunities for others who live in the park. You could say that he was destined to do this. El Kassmi, a young man with a warm smile short dark hair, grew up near Morocco’s famous and extensive Friouato cave system – the only one of its kind in North Africa. Now 30, El Kassmi still recalls his first visit: ‘I was seven when my father took me down for the first time. I remember it clearly. It was wonderful. My father’s job in the park was to look after the caves, and he used to tell us about it every evening.’

Younes El Kassmi
© GIZ/Abdelmoumen Aomari

A limitless world of wonder

Younes El Kassmi’s eyes light up as he explains, ‘There is so much for speleologists to discover here. At a depth of 160 metres, there is a huge grotto that stretches for three kilometres and is studded with geological features. Even now, we’re not sure how far it reaches, because there are long stretches where you’d have to dive, but the water gets very murky and you can’t see anything.’

It was curiosity and his enthusiasm for the caves that prompted El Kassmi to travel to France in 2014 to study at a specialist school for speleology in Lyon. ‘Then I realised what I could do with all that knowledge back home. So when I completed my studies in 2017, I headed back to Morocco.’ The qualified speleologist and nature guide returned to the Tazzeka National Park, home to no fewer than 365 caves of every conceivable shape and form, complete with underground rivers and lakes. In 2008, El Kassmi had set up Friouato, an association for environmental protection, speleology and mountain tourism, and had already been running tours for Moroccan nationals and foreign tourists visiting the park. After completing his studies, he is now passing on the knowledge he has gained to other members of the association. ‘We want to protect the natural resources and treasures within the caves,’ he says. ‘Stalactites and stalagmites take millions of years to form, centimetre by centimetre. They are a real attraction for tourists, so we choose accessible locations where the formations cannot come to any harm.’

Raising awareness among the park’s population

Working with the park’s managers and the waterways and forestry agencies, Friouato is raising awareness among the local population of the need to protect this 14,000-hectare area with its deep gorges, spectacular waterfalls and extensive forests. GIZ also found out about the association. On behalf of BMZ, and with EU cofinancing, the project is creating ‘green jobs’ and thus boosting employment prospects for young people in environmentally sustainable sectors. ‘That gave me the courage to set up my own business in early 2021,’ El Kassmi recalls. ‘The training GIZ provided in business leadership, management, finances, communications and biodiversity really helped me. I now have a steady income. What I have learned has changed my view of the park, and talking to other people on the training courses has given me all kinds of ideas.’

Younes El Kassmi
© GIZ/Abdelmoumen Aomari

On his website, he now advertises activities far beyond cave visits. He offers forest and mountain hiking, mountain-climbing in the Bouiblane range (which has an elevation of over 3,000 metres), canyoning and kayaking, and professional support for groups of researchers. For the time being, the COVID-19 pandemic has put the brakes on another idea – nature-friendly mountain biking – but his company and the GIZ partners are ready to go with an advertising campaign and plans to establish and develop cycle routes. If all goes to plan, El Kassmi will be welcoming his first guests later this year – 20 mountain bikes are ready and waiting for tourists to discover an area that is perfect for this activity.

Local hospitality

And his guests will also benefit from another of El Kassmi’s initiatives: for the past three years, he’s been organising what he calls ‘solidarity tourism’ in the region. Visitors stay with local families, so they do not have to interrupt their tours in the region to return to their hotel each night. They not only get to discover Morocco’s natural beauty, but also learn about the lives and traditions of the Berber people who live here. ‘The nine families I work with have used the income to renovate their houses. They have had support from the Government but above all from our company. The Berbers have a very long-standing tradition of helping one another,’ he explains. He is visibly proud of an aspect that is very important to him.

Staying to drive something forward

Younes El Kassmi
© Hassan Elyaagoubi

Through his work, Younes El Kassmi is also creating income opportunities for others living in the park, be it traditional handicrafts, work as tourist guides or in hospitality. ‘All my peers have left to find work elsewhere. They don’t realise what treasures we have here. But working on a building site far away doesn’t do anything to help our home region,’ says El Kassmi. And helping to develop his home region is his next major project: he wants to set up a Moroccan centre for speleology. Explaining his plans, he says ‘I want people to be able to train here in Morocco rather than having to go abroad.’ He explains that he now has the skills to do that – and support from government agencies. ‘In 2010, I was a different person than I am now. I’ve changed a lot since then. And by 2030, I’ll have developed and changed even more,’ says El Kassmi confidently.

He has never regretted returning to Tazzeka. Like his father before him, he now tells stories about the caves every evening. He and his wife have recently moved into his parents’ old house above an underground river course. The rush of the water, the thundering of the currents, birdsong, Berber deer and local small-spotted genets are all part of his life. ‘If you understand nature, it’s all music to you.’