Africa

The Tree of Life

Goats

In south-western Morocco, argan trees are an invaluable resource to local tribes. But why are they full of goats?

 

Goats do not usually climb trees. But Morocco’s argan forest contains something so tasty that neither animals nor humans are capable of holding back. Alongside tasty leaves, the trees feature dry fruits of similar size to olives. For goats they are delicious food. For humans they contain the resource behind the world’s most expensive edible oil.

Argan trees are endemic to south-western Morocco. They can become 200 years old and grow between eight and ten metres tall. For centuries they have resisted north-African heat. Their branches are thorny, rough and twisted. They are crucial to the ecosystem and their deep and strong roots have halted Saharan desertification from the east.

The Berber people here have long depended on argan trees. They provide firewood and charcoal for heating. According to researchers, nearly 90 per cent of the regional rural economy is based on the trees in some capacity. However, the most precious resource is the sought-after argan oil, produced from the trees’ dry fruits.

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Until the 1990s, the oil was a regional secret. It spread to the western world and demand flew through the roof. Chemists, dieticians, hair salons, chefs and cosmeticians came to crave the liquid, which is supposedly beneficial to skin, nails and hair. Today it sells for $300 (£195) per litre.

The regional population have reaped the benefits. According to an extensive study by researchers led by the University of California, Davis, the financial windfall has enabled parents to send their daughters to secondary school.

However, they also found that the high demand of argan oil and expanding production put trees at risk. “Our research indicates that while the argan oil boom seems to have benefited locals and improved educational opportunities, especially for girls, it has not improved the forests and may actually have led to their degradation,” said Travis Lybbert, an associate professor at the university’s department of agricultural and resource economics, who led the study.

Part of the problem was that, when families became richer, they invested in more goats. Trees are severely threatened by goats chewing off leaves and consuming fruit. Reports have also suggested that local farmers pick fruit more aggressively and carelessly as international demand increases. The severity and danger of the strain is aggravated by the trees’ endemism – they grow nowhere else on earth.

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That, alongside the laborious production, helps explain the high costs. Goats consuming the fruits are unable to digest the inner kernels, which are left in the waste. Some producers take these back to the villages for oil production. Others take fruits directly from the trees. Once back at the villages comes the ardent task of cracking kernels open by hand. The work usually befalls the females. Numerous processes follow before the oil is ready for sale.

The strain on such workers has increased with the oil’s booming exclusivity. According to researchers, in the 1990s entrepreneurs promoted it directly to high-quality tourism markets. Demand soared. In response, apparent conservation initiatives emerged that aimed to use the value of oil to enrich the lives of hard-working women while preserving the forests. That industry quickly expanded from a handful of organisations to more than a hundred.

Argan oil today remains very much in demand, but the trees show no sign of bettering. According to the study, nearly one-half of the argan forest vanished during the 20th century. The density of the remaining part declined drastically. In 1998 UNESCO created a 2,500,000-hectare biosphere reserve around the site and provided cash for conservationists. But more seems to be needed.

Photos: Clara, Posztos, sisqopote [all via Shutterstock.com].

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