Balancing the past and future of Argan trees

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PBCJ, Marrakech, Morocco

Argan is one of the oldest species of tree to be found in Morocco. Its deep root systems help it weather long periods of drought, stabilizes the soil, decreases erosion and by extension prevents desertification.  Traditionally it’s a valued source of food, fuel and timber for construction. Now the importance of the tree, which can grow up to ten meters high, has soared even higher.  

The oil extracted from the fruit - often referred to as “liquid gold” - is helping to empower Moroccan women. Several women's co-operatives that are producing Argan oil in south west Morocco have seen their incomes rise. But all that glitters or in this case flowers is not gold.

Reporter Carol Francis paid a visit to one such co-operative located in Essaouira and filed this report.

In the ’60s and ’70s, Essaouira was a stop for a number of famous musicians, including Jimi Hendricks and Jamaica’s own Bob Marley. Today, visitors to Morocco are still making the trek for its ambiance and beaches. Others for the by products made from the nut of the Argan tree.

Along the way, goats can be seen perched on the thorny gnarled trunks nibbling on the small leaves and fruit of the Argan tree. The wood of the tree, which can live for up to 200 years, is used for fuel and in construction. The leaves are used as food for animals and the fruit or nut for making oil.

The thorns make it difficult to harvest the nuts. But the goats provide a ready solution.

The process to produce the oil is simple but labour intensive. Once the nuts are gathered, women use a stone to crack the shells open revealing the oil rich kernels, which are then placed into a small press that is used to extract oil that is often referred to as "liquid gold." The pure oil is highly sought after due to its reported high levels of vitamin A, E and essential fatty acids. Moroccans have been using it for hundreds of years and swear it has a range of medicinal benefits including healing of scars, eczema and the prevention of wrinkles.

The oil is made into a variety of skin care products, including soap, hand and face creams which are in great demand across the world. The nut can also be roasted then pressed for eating.

The production of Argan oil and cosmetics is an income earner for women who have formed a number of co-operatives, but the new found wealth has a flip side. Money earned is used in part to buy among other things goats. But the tree has been slowly disappearing due to overgrazing by goats and the use of the wood for charcoal.

There is a need to strike a balance between, preserving the Argan tree and preventing desertification, while maintaining productivity and the economic independence of the women involved in the production of this so-called "liquid gold."

For the Earth Journalism Network…I'm Carol Francis reporting from Morocco for PBCJ.. the peoples station.