Morocco’s tree of life in decline

argan and goats

Goats graze on an argan tree

The argan agroforestry system sustains an estimated 3 million people and provides the last natural barrier to desertification in the southwest of Morocco, yet in less than a century, tree density has decreased from 100 to 30 trees per hectare.

“The exploitation of argan is not sustainable,” says Mohammed SghirTaleb, a research scientist with the Institut Scientifique, Université Mohammed V-Agdal, Rabat in Morocco who presented a study of argan during the World Congress on Agroforestry in Delhi, India.

“What we need is a national strategy on access and benefit sharing which could improve the livelihoods of local people through sustainable use and management of the resource at the local and regional levels.”

The Argan tree (Argania spinosa (L.) Skeels) is endemic to Morocco and known locally as the ‘tree of life’. It covers about 870.000 hectares, primarily in the south west of the country.

The tree is perhaps best known for the oil it produces which is now the most expensive edible oil in the world. It is prized in international markets for its use in cosmetic products to nourish skin and hair, and is also promoted as a treatment for acne, skin inflammation, to reduce cholesterol and strengthen the immune system.

Extracting the oil from the ‘almond’ inside the berry-like fruits is a lengthy process, taking about 10 hours to produce 1 litre from 38kg of fruit. This extraction is mostly carried out by women and there are more than 100 women’s cooperatives operating in Morocco servicing national and international companies.

Extraction of argan oil is traditionally carried out by women

Extraction of argan oil is traditionally carried out by women

It is not only argan oil which is highly valued. The ecosystem in which argan trees grow also provides an important source of timber, forage and firewood for local communities.

But, says Taleb, this ecosystem is under threat from changing climatic conditions as well as the demand for agricultural land from a growing population. “This, combined with overharvesting, overgrazing, soil erosion and the advancing desert, is continually reducing the area covered by argan agroforestry.”

Morocco has taken several measures to conserve the argan ecosystem which contains one third of the country’s flora. In 1998 an area of 2.5 million hectares was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Restoration and regeneration efforts are also underway as well as programs to sustainably develop the argan industry and prevent further desertification.

Taleb is concerned that these measures may still not be sufficient to ensure the long-term livelihoods of those who depend on argan agroforests.

“Better valuation of argan tree is needed, based largely on control of the value chain and the establishment of access and benefit sharing mechanisms.”

The argan ecosystem in Morocco

The argan ecosystem in Morocco

Download the poster:

Taleb, M S (2014). Argan tree (Argania spinosa (L.) Skeels) in Morocco: Function, management, and Access and Benefit Sharing. Poster presented at World Congress on Agroforestry. Institut Scientifique, Université Mohammed V-Agdal, Rabat, Morocco.'

Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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