Is Morocco losing control over the growing meteorite business? And what rights can the country really claim? Freelance journalist Mohamed Akinou investigates.
Four years ago, the population of Tissint, an area located in the south-east of Morocco, saw a glowing fireball penetrate the skies before it settled in the ground a couple of kilometers away from their quiet village.
Six months after the spectacular event, New York Times reported that the meteorite of Tissint was a space rock ejected from Mars and that it had been purchased by the Natural History Museum in London at a price which “was several times the museum’s annual acquisition budget”.
The meteorite was named “Tissint”, and is deemed by scientific reports as one of the most important rocks that fell on the face of Earth during the last hundred years.
Ibrahim, a young man in his thirties from Guelmim City and an expert in searching for meteorites, says that the meteorite business in the south is an active market where one could find both the original and the fake. The business is managed by traders and mediators who purchase rocks at low-cost from nomads in the desert, exploiting their poverty as well as their lack of knowledge of the scientific value of these meteorites. Ibrahim angrily talked about the fraudulence and greed that prevail in the transactions. He told us stories of certain meteorite traders who became rich overnight; stories which are closer to fiction than reality.
We met a young man called Jalal in Agadir, he came from Samara City in the desert carrying a bag which contained a variety of rocks in different sizes. He said that they were important pieces of meteorites waiting to be examined in the laboratory to determine their commercial and scientific value. Jalal is in his mid-thirties. He also said that the search for meteorites in the desert is “an experience riddled with risks, and considerable patience is required to find a piece of space rocks.” They go out together with the nomads, and although they might know where the meteorite fell, a mission could last over two months: “When we find some small granules of a meteorite, we know that larger parts, which sometimes may weigh up to more than seven kilograms, are nearby,” Jalal explains.
Several sources inform us that the meteorite trade networks in Morocco are not so much organized networks as they are networks tied by business relationships and common interests. These networks can be divided into categories; the most important of which is the “meteorite hunters”, who often embark on long journeys searching for meteorites or buying them from the local inhabitants and herders at prices that are a lot cheaper than the global market value. Prices vary according to the quality and range between $500 and $1,000 per one gram depending on the scientific value of the rock and its time on Earth. For example, one gram of the Tissint meteorite was sold at a price 20 times higher than the price of its weight in gold.
Then we have the “meteorite speculators”, who play the role of the mediator with the biggest dealers. They often settle in big cities adjacent to the areas where meteorites tend to fall, such as Tata or Ouarzazate. The trade operations of the meteorite rocks ultimately reach the most important phase when they are transferred and sold in the global markets, a job often carried out by dealers of European and American nationalities.
These precious stones are valuable commodity for research institutes, museums and wealthy Western amateur collectors. To be sure, the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration agency, NASA, remains at the top of the scientific institutions that obtain space rocks of high scientific value.
Conflict between traders and scientists
Inside the laboratory at the Faculty of Science at Ibn Zohr University in Agadir, Dr Abderrahmane Ibhi, a Moroccan researcher specialized in meteorites, is studying specimen of the meteorites that fell in the south of Morocco.
Dr Ibhi claimed that Morocco is one of the foremost exporters of meteorites in the world. Given the growing interest in this subject in recent years, along with the trading of large amounts of meteorites out of Morocco, Dr Ibhi called for “the establishment of a national museum specializing in keeping meteorites because they are an important national heritage which should be accessible for people and the future generations.” The local expert added that the total number of Martian meteorites in the world is 50 – and that 21 of them were in fact collected in Morocco. But they have all been transferred abroad, without anyone knowing exactly how they made it past the borders. Some of these meteorites, he says, were sold in auctions in the United States to world-renowned museums.
According to Ibhi, the meteorites that fall in the Moroccan desert are of great scientific value. When they land in the desert, he explains, they are affected neither by water pollution nor the chemical reactions of the soil, which helps to preserve their original components. The meteorite that was ejected from Mars and fell in 2011 near Tata City “has great scientific value because it will reveal invaluable information about the planet of Mars,” the expert adds.
The laboratory of Dr Ibhi tried to fill a large gap in research focused on the study of meteorites in Morocco since there are only two such laboratories in the entire country. The scientific laboratories are generally considered as meeting points between the traders who need science to verify the quality of the rocks in order to determine the market price, and the researchers and specialists who are always in need of specimens for scientific and educational purposes.
From Mars to London, the puzzle of “Tissint Meteorite”
Tata City caught the interest of specialists after the fall of the Martian meteorite in the village of Tissint in 2011. It was a significant event which brought the name of the area to the international scientific community. Still, the conditions of moving a piece of that meteorite abroad remain a mysterious puzzle. A large part of it, about 1.1 kilograms, currently resides behind the corridors of the Natural History Museum in London after the museum purchased it in January 2012 from American meteorite collector Darryl Pitt. The latter said that he too bought it from a mediator who transferred it immediately from Morocco to Paris. The Natural History Museum has not yet revealed the amount of money it offered Pitt, but the US press reported that it is likely several times higher than the annual budget usually allocated by the museum to the acquisition of meteorites.
Interested researchers argue that the meteorite dealers are taking advantage of loopholes in Morocco to achieve significant financial profits through transactions with mediators outside the country. It should be noted though that Morocco, unlike some other Arab countries, has not yet set any clear legislation to regulate the trade in meteorites and space rocks.