Marrakech Traditional Tanning
In 2000, when I was giving a couple of talks as part of the Meet in Africa symposiums my wife and I stayed on in Morocco and visited the traditional tanneries of Fez. Even spending quite a lot of time down in amongst the pits it was quite hard to get a full detail of what was going: but it was clear that we were observing a mimosa based tannage and dyeing which was reportedly using local natural dyes. And that it had not changed much since the twelfth century.
I have just now had the chance to spend a couple of hours in the traditional sector of that other famous Moroccan town Marrakech. The tanneries here all sit in one part of the old city just inside the walls with the river nearby. Like Fez this area of pits is classed as a tourist destination where tourists are asked to delight in surviving this squalor of this famously filthy trade. The smell, the dirt and the untidiness are somehow celebrated as tourists look on with twigs of mint held under their noses. It may seem like harmless fun, but actually this is all bad for the workers and bad for the image of the leather industry.
The Industrial Revolution and Cradle to Grave
Just as in Fez it was quite hard to get full details of the process. The tannage here is a mix of mimosa and a local bark. I do not know the nature of this local material as I write this – we are still searching – but I do know that it comes from forests now much depleted (tanners getting much of the blame) and that the nearest remaining forest is near the capital on the coast Rabat. Actually I have seen papers since returning home saying that tanners were the main ones responsible for five centuries of steady forest decline in Morocco: a serious charge.
We also saw little warehouses selling the chemicals to the tanneries which included chrome from BASF, sodium sulphide and sodium hydrogen sulphide. The chrome tanning is done in little tanneries down the side streets rather than in the main area, using drums in dark satanic rooms with no ventilation and little of anything else. Back in the pits it would appear that individuals own – passed down from father to son – a small group of pits set together along with a shed nearby in which the skins are dried and staked with a moon knife. In Fez a tanner will own a set of individual pits scattered over a large area, as the pits are grouped into liming, tanning and dyeing sections.
The sulphide was lying about open and we did not see any unhairing. Delime and preparation for tanning was done with a bran drench which slowly releases organic acids into the bath to prepare the pelt. The mimosa was in powder form and the locals bark appeared to be ground up only. Tannage in the pits was supposed to be only one week, with higher grades given two weeks. We saw little dyeing, which was much more apparent in Fez.
Plan for Progress: cradle to cradle
Nine hundred years ago in Morocco life expectancy was well under forty, so the fact that a tanner died young was not significant. Now that we are living more healthy lives it is clear that what is going on here is not appropriate for the 21st century, anywhere in the world. You cannot get away with saying it is “quaint” or “traditional” or important for tourism and employment and in doing so turn a blind eye to proper issues of health and safety. Yet the sector is economically important and cannot just be closed down and forgotten about.
So what can be done? Actually a great deal, and here are some suggestions. First start from embracing the principles of cradle to cradle manufacture, the post industrial revolution approach to product design and to manufacturing. First you would ban all chrome tanning. There is no possibility to tan safely with chromium in these conditions safely and to handle the waste water created. It is not an argument about CrIII or CrVI: chrome tanning of any sort here is wrong.
Second: tidy up. It may be that in the 12th century people did not accepted walking around in all sorts of dangerous mess but that does not mean it is right to do so today. Odd skins and leather pieces lying in dirty corners, opened chemicals left exposed, and general trimmings and rubbish are not part of anything that can be called “traditional” – they are no more than a health and safety hazard. Odiferous and attractive to vermin.
Third use plungers rather than children to mix chemicals in the pits, and add the skins in manageable numbers in nets. It may be a “macho” thing for the children to jump about in the pits but it is not necessary.
Then let’s have a real good look at the process and pick out the good parts. Make sure the local vegetable is from a sustainable source, and if not stick with the mimosa until it can be made so. Reduce all the unhairing chemicals to a minimum and handle the materials with proper care. Look through all the local chemicals used and be sure they are safe and appropriate.
Most of all look at what happens to the effluent. It was not clear from our visit but without chrome and the organic element enhanced then filtering, mixing and settling plus a reed bed might well be enough. The effluent could perhaps then go to the town treatment plant. It should not go to the river.
Having traditional tanneries as a tourist attraction is not a bad idea, but it would be a benefit for Morocco and for the tanning industry if it were not synonymous with filth, life jeopardizing activities, careless handling of dangerous chemicals, labour abuse, and leather which smells so bad that when tourists take it home they find themselves throwing it out. Follow the natural Cradle to Cradle route and both Morocco and the tanning world benefits.