A Landscape Convention for the Maghreb?

Santa Cruz, Oran, Algeria. Source: Gareth Roberts

Background to the Conference

In November 2019 the Maghreb Local Landscape Research Group first met at the Department of Architecture and Urbanism, of the University of Tunis at Sidi Bou Said. The meeting was arranged by Marouen Hedhli at the behest of LRG. It attracted academics and landscape practitioners from Algeria and Tunisia who were keen to strengthen ties and share experiences about landscape issues of common interest in the Maghreb region.

The speakers and programme can be found here.

I made a presentation at that meeting on the European Landscape Convention and posed the question as to whether a similar Convention might be worth promoting in the Maghreb. It was agreed it was and that this should be the subject of the first conference of the Maghreb Group which the Algerian delegates declared their interest in hosting in Oran the following year. The Covid pandemic disrupted those plans, for almost two years. In the interim the Group kept in touch via Facebook and Zoom discussions.

Because landscape is a word / concept not readily understood in the Maghreb, it was always going to be a challenge to get people enthused about the idea of adopting a landscape convention. However, commitments by Governments internationally to work to address global environmental issues such as climate change seemed to us (the Maghrebian Group) to offer a valuable opportunity to engage with politicians, civil society, professional organisations, NGOs and local authorities in landscape (environmental) matters of local interest, too. And so, it has proved. Students from Universities in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco are now part of the Maghreb Group. Most of them are studying architecture, land and water management and urban planning. It is encouraging to note that international professional associations such as IFLAUNESCO and ICOMOS are actively promoting the idea of a Landscape Convention for Africa and some members of the Maghreb are in touch with others in sub-Saharan Africa with common interests and ideas for Landscape Conventions elsewhere in the continent. 

Why should LRG support this work?

The LRG has a key role to play in all this. It should be remembered that LRG was an early promoter of the idea of a Landscape Convention for Europe.  LRG has observer status at CoE meetings relating to the Landscape Convention in Europe and has committed itself to championing the ELC. In 2007 LRG convened an international conference to review progress being made in the implementation of the Convention.  Most of all the countries in Europe are now signatories to the Convention which forms part of international law. 

The implementation of the ELC, and for any similar Landscape Convention for that matter, involves 12 steps.  In my presentation to the Oran Conference, I set out those steps in the diagram below. (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Proposed Steps to Implement a Landscape Convention (Source: Gareth Roberts)

 Steps 1 and 2 (coloured yellow) are requirements of states to establish laws (1) and policies (2) governing landscape (environmental matters). Steps 3-9 (coloured green) have to do with civil society, NGOs, local authorities and government agencies to record/ survey landscapes (3), analyse & assess them (4) setting quality objectives to raise standards (5) protect (6), manage (7) and plan (8) them and monitor changes (9).  Underpinning all of the above are ongoing commitments to education (10) and professional training (11) (coloured orange) and finally a commitment by governments to work in partnership, internationally (12) (coloured blue).

What the Conference set out to achieve

The Oran Conference set itself 3 objectives:

  • To reach a conclusion about the Conference question: ‘A Landscape Convention for the Maghreb?’ or not.
  • Help strengthen and grow the Maghreb Local Landscape Research Network;
  • Decide on how to take forward the recommendations / aspirations of the Conference

This question was answered on the final day of the Conference with an astounding ‘Yes’. The idea of formulating such a convention would help provide a focus for the Local Groups work going forward, given many of the characteristics, issues and challenges facing the Maghrebian countries are shared. 

Students had taken time out from their end of year examinations to listen to the presentations, formed themselves into three groups to work ideas and present their proposals to all the conference delegates in the closing plenary event.

The first group (comprising post graduate students) were charged with addressing the Conference question, analysing what had been presented to them and drafting their reply. Groups two and three, comprised first year undergraduate students. They were charged to work independently on a ‘field study exercise’ exploring the potential for development of open land that formed part of the Oran University Campus. In so doing they were required to reflect on the processes that should condition and inform their thinking about future development and then to present their ideas for critical analysis and discussion among the Conference delegates.   

Group 1 concluded that a Landscape Convention should be promoted in the Maghreb and went a step further by drafting a Convention for the Conference to consider. It was drafted in French and is shown below. Their proposal is closely aligned and reflects the ethos and philosophical aspirations of the ELC. This group argued that the rational for such a Convention is founded on a shared linguistic and religious heritage, geophysical and climatic conditions and other cultural and customary practices reflected in the character of towns and cities and the wider landscapes of the region.

The delegates were reminded that the ‘colonial landscape’ of the Maghreb reflects long standing enmities, too. It was very noticeable during a tour of the city of Oran that some such landscapes were ‘run-down’ and had been neglected. A Landscape Convention could help open a debate about shared landscape heritage, quality and social justice. Several references were made to the challenges that faced the promotion of a landscape heritage, too. Some of the Maghreb countries don’t get along with each other, politically and as in the case of Algeria, laws governing the ways in which landscapes are planned, managed and protected are often overlooked or forgotten.

Groups 2 and 3 concluded similarly.  Group 2 identified the need to understand why a decision restricting public access to a woodland to be better explained and understood. It led to questions about public participation and transparency in decisions made about places (their landscapes). 

Group 3 undertook to prepare a local plan for the land in question but again reflected the importance of a plan based on surveys and sound analysis of proposals meeting needs identified by public consultation.

The report from the workshops can be found here.

Students at the Maghreb LRN workshops preparing their presentations. Source: Gareth Roberts

Presentations made by academics and landscape practitioners reflected their current landscape research interests are to be found on the Local Maghreb Group’s Facebook page. You are encouraged to look at it and join the Group.

What now?

The proposal to work towards establishing a Landscape Convention for the Maghreb is an ambitious target. The Maghreb Group decided to prepare a constitution to formalise its activities and set up a sub-Group which has been tasked with preparing a draft of the Convention proposed by students. Discussions can then begin with Government Ministers, NGOs and professional groups. All the Maghrebian countries have signed up to the Paris accord on Climate change, so this might provide a way in to agreeing policies and programmes that will need to be implemented systematically and in a coordinated way across borders.

The Maghreb Group plans to convene its next conference in 2024. It is grateful to LRG for its support and strengthen these links into the future.

All papers (power point presentations) from the Conference are now, or shortly will be, available on the Maghreb Local LRG web site.  A fuller report on the implications of the Conference for LRG will be made presented to the LRG Board meeting in September 2023.  

Front de Mer, Oran, Algeria. Source: Gareth Roberts

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