This is a story about a rare tree. Goats who will do anything to eat it. The people who have harvested its fruit for centuries. The precious oil they extract from that fruit and whether rising global demand for the oil will save or doom what they consider the tree of life.
ABDELLAH (Translation): The argan tree, for the people of this region is a symbol, of course. It is with them from birth till death.
The Berber people of south-west Morocco have devised ingenious ways to benefit from the argan tree which grows almost nowhere else. Incredibly, so have their goats, which have learned to climb its prickly branches to graze. Traditionally, families extracted the fruit's stones from goat droppings and women toasted the kernels found inside. After grinding them in to a paste, they knead them with water in order to extract the oil. It takes a whole day to make half a litre.
RYKA (Translation): Argan is something we use a lot at home. We use argan oil in soup, couscous, some people make tagine with it. We sell it, we eat it, argan has a lot of benefits, medicinal benefits and it helps us a lot. We all profit from it and so do the animals.
The argan tree is also key to the local eco system and its arid soil.
DR ZOUBIDA CHARROUF, MOHAMMED V UNIVERSITY (Translation): The argan tree is the last bastion against desertification. Without that tree the whole population will migrate to the big cities to find work somewhere else. That’s why we have to preserve it. It’s part of the Moroccan heritage. We must preserve it because of the role it plays.
But this unique forest stretching across south-west Morocco is under threat, eaten away by urban sprawl, agriculture, and too many hungry goats. 100 years ago, there were more than 600 trees a hectare here, now, there are less than 200. In 1998, the argan forest was declared a UNESCO biosphere, but only a fraction of it is fully protected. Dr Zoubida Charrouf, a chemist who wrote her PhD thesis on the argan tree, decided something needed to be done.
DR ZOUBIDA CHARROUF (Translation): It all started when we read articles that said Morocco had already lost half of its argan forest area and was losing 600 hectares every year. How to turn this environmental problem into an economic opportunity is the aim of our work.
The doctor hoped to save the forest by helping local communities make a buck. For over a decade, she's been involved in setting up cooperatives like this one in Taroudant. Berber women produce oil without the help of goats, using a combination of modern machinery and manual labour.
DR ZOUBIDA CHARROUF: It take too much time. Time consuming. Actually there is no machine to do it – so at the same time it give a job to the ladies of the cooperative. It’s very… to crack the nut it’s very, very hard.
Many co-ops welcome tourists. The doctor says commercialising argan oil is a win for financial communities who reap financial rewards and also for the forests.
DR ZOUBIDA CHARROUF (Translation): If the product is seen to have value and if the local people benefit from it, they’ll naturally get involved in the preservation of the species. That’s our objective.
Foreign aid money has helped fund the co-ops. The women here are paid about $50 a week for their work. Co-ops provide a lot more than just wages. Co-ops like this small one in Agadir also provide literacy classes. The aim is to train and empower the Berber women, as well as to team them to read and write in Arabic.
CO-OP WORKER (Translation): In the training we learn how to crack the nuts better and to sort them. Don’t use the old nuts or the ones that come from the goats – that’s what we learn during the training. We take care of our argan. It’s our livelihood. We don’t let anyone touch our argan.
The doctor says Berber society is conservative and there's been resistance to the idea of women working and studying outside the homes. Like the argan tree itself, this is a process that can take years to bear fruit.
DR ZOUBIDA CHARROUF (Translation): You can’t turn illiterate woman… and they were 95% illiterate… You can’t turn illiterate women into entrepreneurs overnight. It’s very difficult. There’s a lot of work to do.
There are now 170 women's cooperatives. Growth over the past decade has coincided with a huge boom in the argan oil market, with prices soaring as much as 500%.
AD: Moroccan oil has developed a unique ultralight non-greasy formula of argan oil that seals in shine.
Once a sought-after ingredient in kitchens, the so-called miracle oil is making bigger inroads in bathrooms and hair salons where it's described as liquid gold. The argan bonanza has certainly helped Berber families. Rkya, who lives near a co-op in Essaouira can now afford to educate her daughters as well as sons.
RKYA (Translation): It helps us with our children who go to school, we buy them clothes and books. I help them, I keep on cracking at the cooperative and I get my monthly salary and with the pay I help them. That’s why there’s a big benefit, there’s such a big benefit.
But recent studies show that although the argan bonanza has helped the people, it hasn't helped the forest.
ABDELLAH (Translation): All research we’ve carried out until now, whether as surveys or analysis of satellite images clearly shows that… The situation of the forest hasn’t improved. On the contrary, the situation has stagnated… or even worsened.
Abdullah says from an environmental point of view, commercialising argan has backfired. Today, he's showing me how argan kernels are sold to wholesalers in a local market, something unheard of 10 years ago.
ABDELLAH (Translation): Markets such as this one indirectly damage the forest. With the rise in price of argan-based products, people try by any means to collect argan fruit in the forest. This has a negative impact on the tree.
Sustainable co-ops aren't a problem but in a scramble to profit from argan, other producers risk killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
ABDELLAH (Translation): Before the argan boom, people waited for all the argan fruit to fall on the ground to collect them. Nowadays people don’t wait for the argan fruit to fall. What they do… they knock the fruit off the tree. They hit the fruit with a stick to get the fruit to fall before it’s ripe. This has a negative impact on the tree.
And so do these herds of goats. Herds which are getting larger thanks to money earned selling argan. Dr Abourdrare wanted to show me what happens when trees are fenced off from the goats. Unfortunately for the trees, argan fattened goats are particularly delicious. It's the Muslim holy day for the Festival of Sacrifice, and the doctor is looking forward to feasting on goat.
Despite an ambitious government program of tree planting, the future of the argan forest still hangs in the balance. The trees take many years to mature and meanwhile land is being cleared for other uses.
DR ZOUBIDA CHARROUF (Translation): I’ve seen it a few times. Some politicians talk at a rally in the morning saying, “We must protect the argan tree. It creates jobs, helps the environment and so on. Three hours later they open a corn or citrus plantation. It’s not coherent. We have to talk the same language to preserve the forest.
ABDELLAH (Translation): If the argan forest continues to shrink, it will be a disaster for Morocco. It’s a national loss for Morocco. The argan is part of our national heritage. If we lose it, if we go on degrading it, we will lose that heritage. We must act before it’s too late.
Original Music composed by VICKI HANSEN