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SLIDE 2. Within Morocco’s economy, Industry makes up approximately 20% of the labor force, which are about 11 million people. Leather is the largest major export to partners like Spain, France and India and exports up to 100 million shoes annually.
SLIDE 3. The city of Fez was founded in the 9th century and is now home to over one million people. It has 58 established tanneries scattered throughout the city and within the inner workings exists the world’s oldest labyrinth city known as the Old Medina. In 1981 the Old Medina was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Old Medina is specifically home to three ancient leather tanneries, the largest being the Chouara Tannery, which has been washing, treating, smoothing, and coloring animal skins into soft, leather goods for over a thousand years.
SLIDE 4. The start of the tanning process begins with the collection and sorting raw animal skins. The types of animal skins include: sheep skin, goat skin, camel skin, and cow skin with the best quality leather coming from goat and camel skins. These skins are soaked for two to three days in large specialty vats that contain a mixture of cow urine, quicklime, water, and salt. This mixture will loosen excess fat, flesh, and hair that remain on the skins. Once the soaking duration is done, tanners then scrap away excess hair fibers and fat in order to prepare the skins for dyeing.
SLIDE 5. Once the skins have been cleaned, they are laid out to dry on the surrounding rooftop terraces. Once dried, the skins are taken to a different set of vats where they are washed and soaked in a mixture of water and pigeon poop in order to make the skins supple and soft. Pigeon poop contains ammonia that acts as softening agents that allows for the skins to become so malleable. The tanner then uses his bare feet to knead the skins for up to three hours to achieve the desired softness.
SLIDE 6. At this point, once the leather has reached its desired softness, the skins are moved to a select set of vats for the tanning (or dyeing) process. Within the Old Medina, the tanneries continue to use natural vegetable dyes, such as poppy flower (red), indigo (blue), henna (orange), cedar wood (brown), mint (green), and saffron (yellow). Other materials used for dyeing include pomegranate powder, which is rubbed on the skins to turn them yellow, and olive oil, which will make them shiny.
SLIDE 7. Typically the skins are left in the dyeing vats for approximately one week in order for the skins to fully absorb the color. Each week the dyes are changed out for different colors.
SLIDE 8. Once the skins have fully absorbed the selected dyes they are taken to a different location within the tannery to be stretched across wooden frames to dry for about another week. In total, the tanning process takes approximately 20 days from start to finish.
SLIDE 9. When fully dried, the edges of the finished skins are cut and used as fillers for other products. The leather is then sold to other craftsmen who make the famous Moroccan slippers, known as babouches, as well as wallets, handbags, furniture and other leather accessories. Many of these products are making their way into the European markets are suddenly becoming a sought after commodity.
SLIDE 10. Judging from most of the pictures above, you can see that the art of tanning is run and carried out by men. Many of the families and workers live around the tanneries and their skills are passed down from generation to generation through the male lineage.
SLIDE 11. The life of a tanner is not an easy one. Not only is it considered to be one of the hardest and dirtiest professions within the Fez, it is also incredible labor intensive. On average, the workers put in 10-hour days, six days a week and get paid by the number of pieces they produce. This means that the monetary reward for beginning tanners is on average $2 a day and master craftsmen bring in approximately $5 a day.
SLIDE 12. Although the ancient tanneries in the Old Medina in Fez still use traditional organic materials, there are still 55 other tanneries that have adopted modern technology and chemical processes to product the same product. Instead of using vegetable agents like those used in the Old Medina tanneries, these newer facilities use chemicals such as sulpher, sulphate, formic acid, and chrome.
SLIDE 13. As you can probably imagine, the amount of waste that is generated by the tanneries is certainly substantial. All the chemicals, bacteria, and animal bi-product gets dumped into the same place, the Sebou River and the Fez River which also collects the rest of the city’s untreated water and industrial waste. It is estimated that over 100 tons of chrome is dumped into the Sebou River every year.
SLIDE 14. Out of the 58 tanneries that are located in Fez, only 17 of them are linked up to Fez’s first chrome removal plant, which opened in 2003. The plant processes around two and a half tons of recycled chrome that it then sold back to the tanneries to be used again. However the plant can only remove around 40% of the chrome that continues to pollute the rivers of Fez.
SLIDE 15. In recognizing this obvious problem, trained architect and native Moroccan Aziza Chaouni was the recipient of a 2008 Gold Holcim Award for Africa Middle East for her river remediation and urban development plan for the Old Medina in Fez. Chaouni received her M. Arch from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and is currently the co-founder of Bureau E.A.S.T.
SLIDE 16. Aziza Chaouni and LA-based urban planner Takako Tajima, are proposing to move the tanneries that exist in the Old Medina closer to the newer ones in the industrial parts of Fez. Since the tanneries are one of the main perpetrators contributing to river pollution, Aziza has proposed to shift the leather tanning stages to more remote facilities this way the workers are less exposed to toxins.
SLIDE 17. Aziza and her collaborators have conceived of the “Made in Fez” brand that aims to both benefit the tannery workers as well as the leather craftsmen. The “Made in Fez” brand was created to focus on niche markets that value sustainability (both environmental and social), quality, and innovation. It is the hopes that the “Made in Fez” brand can create a new craft culture within the Medina walls.
SLIDE 18. The goal of rehabilitated the tanning facilities are to create a green space within the Medina. Chaouni proposes that the vats be transformed into botanical gardens, workshops and studios, community center, education center, and other communal facilities shared by leather workers and visitors to the leather district.
SLIDE 19. However there is quite a bit of backlash in regards to removing the tanneries to a different location and installing a botanical garden. Many feel as though that is Western “beautification” concept would be imposed on Fez and wouldn’t speak true to the organic nature of the Medina. Many are concerned with the replacement of an economic infrastructure with one that may not be as economically viable.
SLIDE 20. And what about the tannery workers? Many wonder how the displaced Old Medina workers will cope with trying to function and find work within the newer facilities scattered around the outskirts of town. It looks as though only time will tell.
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