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Arganauts Against the Desert

Are Berber women in Morocco’s argan groves holding back the spreading Sahara by producing a first-world luxury?

June 8, 2013

Argan tree in Morocco (Credit: Bjorn Christian Torrissen - Wikimedia)

Everyone knows that the world’s deserts — from the Sahara to the Gobi — are spreading their fingers of sand. The desert expands as lands are over-grazed and over-tilled. Trees are clear-felled for timber.

The loss of vegetation and drought drives the process. The Sahara is expanding south at a rate of 48 km per year, as once-fertile lands become arid.

But there is a good news story to set against this dreary narrative. In Morocco, there are strong counter-moves to stop the desert at the Atlas Mountains (see map).

The story involves a native tree, the argan, but also the Berber women of the Atlas. They are organizing to save the tree, and their livelihoods, through village-based women’s cooperatives.

For centuries, the Berber tribes of southwest Morocco have lived in villages with their crops, their herds of sheep and goats — and their argan trees.

These semi-desert, spiky bush-like trees have deep roots and the capacity to survive even in the harshest conditions.

They also provided villagers over those centuries with critical resources — fuel for cooking and heating, timber for building, fodder for goats and cattle — and oil, extracted laboriously from the dried fruits of the tree.

Then Europe intervened. When the properties of argan oil were discovered by European chemists, a new industry sprang up. Argan oil was soon exploited both for cosmetic purposes (anti-aging, anti-wrinkling) and culinary uses (nutty tasting oil for cooking and salads).

Argan oil became the most expensive table oil on the planet. And an argan boom was created in Morocco.

Unlike past European interventions, though, this one was fortuitous. For through this process, unfolding in the 1980s and ’90s, the destruction of argan groves in Morocco was actually slowed.

Reforestation programs have been started in an attempt to reverse the process. In effect, argan oil established a new line of defense against encroaching desertification with renewed support for argan groves.

The Atlas Mountains, with their argan tree cover, now stand as the only protection against the encroaching Sahara.

The argan oil phenomenon has three aspects that make it of global interest.

  • Its ecological properties stand as shield against desertification.
  • Its economic potential earns revenues for Berber communities and exports for Morocco.
  • Its social dimension is that much of the argan oil phenomenon has been driven by new women’s cooperatives. This gives them a source of independence and balancing gender roles in a largely Islamic country.

Ecological: The Moroccan argan groves cover an area of approximately one million hectares (2.47 million acres) in the country’s southwest, between the Atlas Mountains and the Atlantic coast.

It is a precious ecological resource — as recognized by UNESCO in granting it “Man and Biosphere Reserve” status in 1998.

The argan tree, with its deep roots and capacity to withstand arid conditions, is indigenous to Morocco and provides an ideal buffer against desertification. It binds the soil and provides shelter for many other rural activities.

Without it, the Sahara would already have advanced beyond the Atlas Mountains to approach the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. This would have had devastating results for the countries concerned and the regional climate.

Instead there is a light covering of argan trees across the Moroccan landscape today. But it is one that desperately needs to be strengthened — if desertification is to be stopped and (even) reversed.

Economic: Morocco’s argan grove was almost destroyed by willful deforestation. This was driven largely by pursuit of wood for fuel by fast-growing cities like Casablanca.

It was the developed world’s (re)discovery of the argan nut’s wonderful properties that provided an alternative economic resource, in addition to destructive use of the tree for its wood.

The nut and its oil had been in traditional use for centuries, but it was only after its properties were further developed by European and Moroccan scientists that its distinctive, pure, nutty flavor and properties became known to a global market.

Today, argan oil is one of the world’s most expensive, selling wholesale for €28 ($36) per liter. In retail markets such as European cosmetic shops the price can reach several hundred euros per liter.

It is prized as culinary oil in Japanese, European and New York restaurants for its nutty, fresh flavor.

But as an indigenous tree its productivity is limited. As much as 30kg of nuts are needed to produce one liter of oil.

A single argan tree can produce only about one liter of oil per season — compared with 50 liters of oil from an olive tree. That explains the high price.

Social: The business of harvesting, processing and marketing the argan fruit and oil is almost entirely an activity of Berber village women. They increasingly organize themselves into women’s village cooperatives in order to have some extra market clout.

Traditionally the women would perform these tasks in isolated households. Berber men would take the extra oil (beyond that needed for daily living) to market.

Now increasingly, due to sustained efforts by NGOs and by village women themselves, the activities are dominated by women as a group, who increasingly control revenues from the sale of the cosmetic and edible versions of the argan oil.

In a deeply conservative Islamic culture, this is no mean feat. In an eco-tour in the Atlas Mountains undertaken in April 2013, I met some of these women’s coop members.

Lalla Nezha Aktir is President of the Coopérative Agricole Féminine Tifaout, organized for purposes of production and commercialization of argan oil and local agricultural products.

She is a very forceful and dedicated protector of her coop’s interests. The picture shows the sign to the coop’s activities center. (No picture of Ms Aktir is provided at her own request.)

Coopérative Agricole Féminine Tifaout. Photo by John Mathews.

Of course, the benefits of argan oil are not fairly distributed. The retailers and intermediaries still pocket most of the funds generated. Only a small amount flows back to the village women.

But the women’s coops are directly targeting this issue and are raising their share of the total revenues generated by the value chain as a result.

There are several NGOs working with the women’s coops to help drive this process.

Industry associations have been created expressly to give the women a collective voice in maintaining quality control and their own employment possibilities, as well as facilitating access to the wider market.

Such organizations include the Groupements d’Interets Economiques (e.g., the Taroudannt GIE), as well as the National Association of Argan Cooperatives (ANCA) and the Union of Women’s Argan Cooperatives (UCFA), utilizing brands such as “Argan d’or.”

However, the gains women have made are precarious and could be undone by their own success.

Fundamentally, it is the women organized in their cooperatives in Morocco, bringing argan oil to the world and generating alternative economic uses for the argan tree, who constitute the front line in halting the further northward spread of the Sahara in Morocco.

Their efforts are bearing fruit in every sense of the term. It is time that the rest of the world recognized this fundamental contribution and rewarded them appropriately.