Morocco's Sand Mafias

As Morocco's tourism sector struggles to rebound from Covid-19, a transnational trafficking enterprise is also plaguing the country's coastlines. Unlike other smuggling operations, this one relies on the coast for more than just a point of transit. That's because the trafficked good at the heart of this enterprise is the sand that makes up the coastline itself. Unregulated sand mining is actively destroying Morocco's beaches, often at the hands of organized groups deemed "sand mafias."

Traffickers—ranging from laborers using donkeys to government workers looking to exploit their position for a quick benefit—pillage sand from Moroccan beaches. The sand is sold abroad or funneled into the country's booming construction industry. Because it's cheap and readily available, sand is often used as the aggregate in concrete—a component that makes up almost three-fourths of the total mix, when combined with cement and water.

As Morocco continues to invest in infrastructure, housing, and commercial development, that amounts to a lot of sand. In 2019, an estimated 10 million cubic meters—or nearly half of the sand used in Moroccan construction projects—came from illegally extracted coastal sand. Because the wind-formed sands of the Sahara desert are too smooth to be used as a binder in concrete, only coastal sands will do the trick. Beach sand is also easy to access and lacks a private owner—making it easier to exploit.

Sand mafias are not unique to Morocco. Globally, the world mines 50 billion tons of sand per year, and the transnational trade of trafficked sand was worth nearly $1.9 billion in 2018. But in Morocco, the same sand industry that is constructing new tourism developments is also depleting the very coastline that those developments rely upon. In just one example along Morocco's western coast, traffickers stripped a 7-kilometer section of beach, leaving behind an eroded, rocky landscape—a change visible on Google Maps.

As Morocco sets its sights on expanding its tourism industry, sand trafficking is eroding the very same future.​​​

This article is part of the series Mezze: Assorted Stories from the Middle East.

Fiona Leary

Former Middle East Program Intern