Chrome, Pigeon Poop, and Botanical Gardens

The historic tanneries of Morocco are an integral part of the Old Medina located in the heart of Fez. For close to a thousand years the tanneries in the Old Medina have been preparing animal skins into soft, supple leather for shoes, handbags, purses, etc. To this day there are only a handful of tanneries left that still implement the use of organic materials for the tanning process. These materials include (but are not limited to):

  • cow urine
  • pigeon poop
  • quicklime
  • wheatbran
  • tree bark
  • grenadine

National Geographic Segment on Tanneries in Morocco – You Tube

However the new generation tanneries that exist in Morocco are much dirtier and more toxic than the old ones currently in the Medina. Many people don’t realize that there are in fact 58 tanneries in Fez and most of them are located in the industrial areas of the city. These newer tanneries employ modern techniques and materials in order to increase production. On average some of the newer tanneries can process 2000 sheepskins a day, whereas the ones located in the Old Medina produce far less. Many of the traditionalists who admire the historical process of tanning are opposed to the use of chemicals such as:

  • sulphur
  • sulphate
  • formic acid
  • chrome

And while tanning is an ancient art in Morocco, it is nonetheless incredibly toxic and creates an enormous amount of pollution. Much of this pollution stems from the use of Chrome in the tanning process. Liquid chrome, as well as other chemicals, that’s used in the tanning process is dumped into Morocco’s water systems and reeks havoc on the ecosystems within the Fez and Sebou Rivers. Out of the 58 tanneries located in Fez, only 17 of them are linked up to Morocco’s first chrome removal plant that was established in 2003. The plant can handle up to eight cubic meters of water a day and recycles the chrome and sulphuric acid in order to sell back to the tanneries to be used again. Yet there is still the problem of over 1000 tons of chrome being dumped into the Sebou River every year. The chrome removal plant can only handle roughly 40% of the chrome that is dumped into the rivers.

In recognizing this problem, Harvard trained architect and native Moroccan Aziza Chaouni (and creator of was the recipient of a 2008 Gold Holcim Award for Africa Middle East for her river remediation and urban development scheme for Fez. The remediation project calls for a range of various interventions:

  • revitalizing the ecology of the Fez River – also known as the “River of Trash”
  • enhance wildlife habitats
  • maintaining and improving Fez’s world heritage UNESCO status
  • create public spaces in the poorest areas – a playground
  • revitalize economic development – a transit hub

Above all the goal is to regenerate the river into the Medina as the city’s lifeline.

Degradation of the Fez River

So where do the tanneries fit in…

From vats to botanical gardens

Aziza Chaouni and LA-based urban planner Takako Tajima, are looking to move the tanneries that exist in the Old Medina elsewhere. More than likely these tanneries will be moved closer to the newer establishments. Since the tanneries are one of the main perpetrators contributing to river pollution, Aziza has proposed to move the tanneries and establish a botanical garden in its place. This aims to clean up the tannery process as well as the contaminated vats and other surroundings. This project aims to capture new opportunities for the city’s leather industry and align with international standards.

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 wonder where the tannery workers will find other employment since many of them have been making a livelihood out of this their entire lives. It is hard for me to comment on the cultural nature of the Medina, having only been there for two days, but for some reason I don’t feel that a botanical garden is something that would necessarily fit in with the Old Medina.

Mint leaves - given to tourists (like me) when you enter the tannery

Category: Design Strategies 3 comments »

3 Responses to “Chrome, Pigeon Poop, and Botanical Gardens”

  1. Leslie Vigeant

    First off, I really enjoy the title you gave to this post, (very eye catching). I think it is interesting that these dyers are using a. such an ancient technique, and b. organic materials. There is such a value to maintaining the traditional techniques that supports the livelihood of these people. It brings up an interesting conversation of design imperialism when these outsiders Aziza Chaouni and Takako Tajima, even if born locally, wants to change the way this industry is run. It seems to me that doing so would be a great detriment to the society and industry of Fez. If water pollution is the problem at hand, perhaps these designers should focus on implementing a shift in habits or sourcing in the industry, instead of trying to simply tuck away, or hide the entire leather dying trade.

  2. Leslie Vigeant

    Also, I would be interested to read/learn about your experiences with this industry, and how an american visiter interrupts this way of life.

  3. ghettobyrd

    Wow, I never took into account the process that had to be done in order to make my shoes or my jackets. Very interesting that it is made from organic materials. I’m just wondering, whoever invented this process, how did they think to use pigeon droppings to soften the skin? That’s pretty random… Innovative use of one’s space, though.

    I feel like the river pollution is very crucial, from my point of view. However, put yourself in the shoes of these poor people who make $5 a day preparing the animal skins. Worrying about the river is the last thing that’s on their mind. The environment seems to be the last priority when some place is focused on economic growth first.

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