Helping Moroccan women preserve the argan tree at the gateway to the Sahara
The argan tree, Argania spinosa, is a species native to Morocco and the second most common tree in the country. The argan tree can live from 150 to 200 years and is very resistant to drought and heat. It grows wild and profusely in the arid and semi-arid regions of southwestern Morocco, in an area extending from Safi to the fringes of the Sahara and bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Atlas mountains to the east. There, it plays a vital role in maintaining the ecological balance and preserving biodiversity. Because of its strong root system, the argan tree helps to retain the soil and assists in combatting water and wind erosion, which puts much of this region at risk of desertification.
The argan tree is important to the local economy. Every part of the tree is useable and provides a source of income or food: the wood is used for fuel, the leaves and fruits provide forage for goats, and the almond oil extract obtained by women is used in cooking and traditional medicine. The argan tree thus provides support for some 3 million people.
Unfortunately, in less than a decade, more than a third of the argan forest has disappeared and its average density has declined from 100 to 30 trees per hectare. However, research shows that the argan tree is not a fossil which is disappearing, but rather a tree of the future for certain arid regions. It is therefore vital to improve the argan tree's production potential, so that it can regain its key position in the agricultural systems of the region. This is the challenge faced by two Moroccan researchers — Professor Zoubida Charrouf of the Faculté des sciences at the Université Mohammed V of Rabat, and Professor Faiçal Benchekroun of the Institut agronomique et vétérinaire Hassan II of Rabat — as part of a project associated with the 'Network on the Valorization of Plant Materials', funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
While the argan tree plays an important role in preserving biodiversity and combatting desertification in arid regions of Morocco, these are very distant concerns for the impoverished local populations. Therefore, the project aims not only to help prevent further environmental degradation but also to improve the economic well-being of these populations of southwestern Morocco, particularly the women. To achieve these goals, the researchers are focussing on: the development of argan tree management scenarios; the selection of trees that produce large amounts of oils and active biological products; improving the native craft procedures for producing argan oil, studying the physiochemical characteristics, chemical composition, and pharmacological activity of argan oil in order to extend its shelf life and develop value-added products from the oil; the economic viability of the women's groups that produce the oil; and the organization of marketing and training of the women's groups.
Marketing argan oil