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A Comparison of Haratin and Ait ‘Atta Indigenous Legal Systems

haratinBy Anna N. Martinez*

The following summary is taken from the article, “Intertribal Conflicts and Customary Law Regimes in North Africa: A Comparison of Haratin and Ait ‘Atta Indigenous Legal Systems” originally published in Volume 12 2011/12 of the University of New Mexico’s Tribal Law Journal online.

The Haratin people of North Africa are an indigenous population who have survived removal, forced labor and economic deprivation at the hands of both French colonial forces and other indigenous groups (i.e., Arabs and Berbers). Despite the history of oppression and displacement, the Haratin have persisted to carve out a cultural space for themselves, including a unique system of property jurisprudence and mutual aid funds.

Social history of the Haratin
Haratin identity is the subject of much debate in North Africa. Often defined by outsiders, the Haratin are characterized by their dark skin color, their class as peasants or agricultural laborers, and their lack of tribal organization. The Haratin’s historical occupation of the oasis region in southern Morocco, along with their social isolation in their respective communities, and their own assertion of autonomy, all support the conclusion that the Haratin are an indigenous group. Although not tribally organized like the local Berber tribes who maintain intricate kinship ties, they do maintain a significant relationship with a specific territory, and even as urban minorities in northern Moroccan cities, their connection to their homeland is reinforced by migration patterns that usually end back at their homelands in southern Morocco.
As a result of displacement by invading tribes, the Haratin historically lived as sharecroppers in the proximity of other population groups, primarily the Berber. The Berber tribe’s political dominance and military power enabled them to maintain a high status and position of dominance over local Haratin populations. Without land or religious prestige, the Haratin were relegated to the bottom of the oasis social hierarchy. Despite the lack of political power in their communities, the Haratin are not entirely powerless. he Haratin have slowly commenced a process of self-determination, aided by recent market changes and rural to urban migration.

Ait ‘Atta Berber tribe’s customary law and their political relationship with the Haratin
Historically, the Haratin were subject to the customary laws of the Ait ‘Atta, a Berber tribe. As outsiders, the ‘Atta customary law regime was hostile to Haratin interests and self-determination. A major part of ‘Atta customary law consisted of land and property rights. A fundamental tenant of ‘Atta land tenure was the prohibition of fragmentation of land ownership or alienation to non-tribal members. Land and tree tenure were the cornerstones of ‘Atta customary law, and determined ownership, production, membership and rights. The exclusion of non-tribal members in this system operated to perpetuate a system of exclusive ownership that disempowered landless populations like the Haratin.
The colonial period in Morocco changed the fortunes of many Haratin laborers who escaped exploitative conditions for work in the city that paid wages rather than a share of crops. The Haratin began purchasing lands they had worked for many years with the wages earned in cities. The conversion of wages into land acquisition served as the primary mode of subversion of the traditional exclusionary system of ‘Atta law and governance. Land acquisition has empowered the Haratin politically, enabling their election to village councils, and ultimately altering the ethno-political structure of the oasis.

Haratin formation and expression of their internal customary law
With the advent of landownership, the Haratin have fashioned their own emerging property and land tenure jurisprudence. Examples include the institution of twiza, a system of sharecropping that is completely run and operated by fellow Haratin, which provides assistance to others who are unable to complete agricultural tasks on their own, and mutual aid funds for burial ceremonies.
The suppression of Haratin people’s ability to (re)acquire land has severely inhibited the visibility of Haratin jurisprudence, identity and self-determination. Western notions of indigenous self-determination are rooted in a tribe’s physical occupation and control or dominion over a territory and its people. The relationship between land and self-determination is revealing in that it is the control of alienation and exploitation of land that can produce a visible legal structure for peoples tied to that land. Because of the landlessness of the Haratin people and their oppression by another indigenous group, the visibility of Haratin laws is minimal and difficult to assess in comparison with the formal structure provided by the Ait ‘Atta.

* graduated at Columbia University in 2002 with a B.A. degree in Middle East & Asian Languages and Cultures, and a minor in Religion. In 2005, Ms. Martinez received her J.D. from the University of New Mexico School of Law with a certificate in Federal Indian Law.



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