The Argan tree, which has been a part of the fauna of North Africa’s Maghreb region for more than 80 million years, is threatened. Climatic changes caused by glaciation during the last ice age led to the disappearance of this previously common tree from most of its original growing area. Today, the Argan tree is limited to the Souss Valley and the foothills of the Atlas and Anti-Atlas mountain ranges of Southern Morocco. The area, a semi-arid region, is often called the "Arganeraie" which means “Argan forest”. The forest is crucial for land and soil: In order to access water, Argan roots reach deep into the ground. This vast roots system stabilizes the soil. The Argan forest is the area’s only defense in the constant struggle against soil erosion and the encroachment of the nearby Sahara desert. Without the Argan forest, the area would turn into desert within a short time. Therefore, every Argan tree lost is a further defeat in the fight against the desertification of the Arganeraie.
Unfortunately, despite its importance for the region, more than half of the Argan forest was lost in the 20th century. The reasons of the recent losses were not natural, but man-made: industrial agriculture, urban development, wood harvesting and livestock grazing.
Why did the Argan Forest disappear?
Destruction caused by Humans. The Four Main Reasons:
1. Industrial agriculture: The expansion of industrial agriculture, which requires intensive irrigation, resulted in the decrease of the natural water supply which the Argan forest relies on to survive.
2. Urban sprawl: Parts of the Argan forest have been cleared to make way for urban development, spurned by growing population numbers and rapid urbanization of the Souss valley’s coastal areas. Argan forests were cleared for the sake of whole new suburbs and villages, as well as for the construction of highways and roads
3. Wood harvesting: Argan wood, also known as “Iron wood”, is strong and an excellent construction material. In addition, wood from the Argan tree has been used as firewood, a tradition which is still alive today.
4. Livestock: And lastly, the centuries
old practice of letting livestock herds graze in the Argan forest continues to severely damage the Argan forest’s ability to naturally regenerate. In particularly goats, who love to feed on Argan leaves and Argan fruits can be disastrous for the Argan forest
Emergency in the Maghreb!
The Argan Forest, Stalwart against the Desert, disappears
UNESCO Biosphere Reserve - Protection
Argan oil has been a part of Berber life for centuries. In the Arganeraie, the oil has been a domestic staple since the Middle Ages. It has been used as cooking and finishing oil in the Berber kitchen. The oil protects hair and skin of the Berber people in the harsh environment of the semi-desert. It has been valued as medicinal ointment and for spiritual purposes. Newborns have been anointed with Argan oil at birth. Still today, Berber women refer to the Argan tree as the” Tree of Life” and assert to have a special spiritual relation with it.
Surprisingly, Argan oil, the main product of the tree, was never commercialized. The traditional production of Argan oil is hard work, and it has been the role of women to take care of the production, from harvesting Argan fruit to the extraction of the oil with ancestral stone mills.
The production of one cup of Argan oil took a woman five to six hours. Since the oil production was so time intensive, the local women would only produce the amount needed for private consumption. Only small amounts of the oil were traded in the local Souks and Bazaars. Outside of Morocco, the oil was virtually unknown.
Mircale Oil from the “Tree of Life”
Back in 1998, to turn around the devastating soil erosion, the Moroccan Government approached UNESCO to protect the Arganeraie by declaring the area a "Biosphere Reserve". This move was supported by with technical expertise and financial contributions by international aid organizations such as Germany's Development Agency GIZ. The main goal of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is to sustainably develop the economy of the area, while protecting and conserving the Argan forest.
Specific objectives of the project are to turn around the disappearance of the Argan forest, to reduce the dependency of the local population on livestock, to rationalize the use of water for industrial agriculture, and to increase the revenue from the Argan forest.
One of the fundamental ideas behind the project was the assumption that indigenous Berber people of the Arganeraie would stop felling Argan trees if they would economically benefit from protecting the forest.
The Birth of the Argan Women Co-op Movement
A key element of the Biosphere strategy has been the commercialization of Argan oil. If Argan oil could be successfully sold in international markets, the value of the tree would immediately rise and discourage felling. Another key objective of the creation of the Biosphere was the improvement of the life conditions of the impoverished local population, in particular of the rural women. Almost all women of the Arganeraie lived a traditional role as homemakers. Most were illiterate. But they were experts in the production of Argan oil.
The idea was born to establish women co-operatives for the production and commercialization of Argan oil. The co-ops would be owned by local women and supported by the government and international donor foundations. Co-ops would not only provide living wages for the members, but also improve the socio-economic status of women within the local society. Starting in the mid Nineties, several women co-operatives were established throughout the Arganeraie. The co-operatives have been set up with democratic structures, including an elected board. President and board are accountable to the general membership in annual meetings and elections. Beside wages, the co-operatives would also offer literacy classes and educational opportunities. The annual profit would be shared amongst the women members.
Empowered Women of the Arganeraie
The strategy worked. The co-operative movement generated a lot of interest abroad. The story of dedicated women coming together to change their lifes for the better by establishing co-operatives was well received in Europe. For the first time ever, Argan oil made its way into international markets. In the beginning, most Argan oil produced by the women co-operatives was culinary oil, made from roasted seeds. Chefs, particularly in France, loved the fine nutty taste of Argan oil. At the beginning of the new Millenium, however, scientist discovered the anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of the oil, which made it a valuable active ingredient for ant-aging beauty products. Today, most Argan oil exported is made from raw seeds and used for cosmetic purposes. Fueled by the success of Argan oil in the international markets, more and more women in the rural villages of the Argan Forests got together to establish local Argan co-operatives in their villages. As time went by, not only did the livelihood of the rural women improve, but the felling of Argan trees for wood harvesting or to make place for agriculture ceased.
Reforestation: Women save the Argan Forest
In addition to the production of Argan oil, various women co-operatives became actively involved in reforestation efforts. Our partner co-operative Al Amal is heading an Argan reforestation project in the Tiznit province. In partnership with Argand’Or of Morocco, the German Development Agency GIZ and the regional forest service, members of the co-operative Al Amal have planted hundreds of Argan saplings around their home village of Ighrem. Young Argan trees have a high mortality rate. Only a small percentage reaches maturity: it takes around fifteen years for an Argan tree to bear fruit. To give trees the greatest possible chance of survival, the women of Al Amal adopted the young Argan trees and committed themselves to take care of them until they reach maturity.
During the initial reforestation event, Argand’Or founder Mohamed El Karz remarked: "Today is a milestone in the protection of the Argan tree and the eco-system Arganeraie. We at Argand'Or are glad to assist our partners from the Al Amal Women Cooperative and the Moroccan authorities in their effort to rescue the Argan forest and to provide good paying jobs to Berber women”.
Traditional Production of Argan Oil
Production of Argan Oil has been traditionally the role of Berber women. The six step process is labor intensive: it takes five to six hours of manual labor to produce one cup of Argan oil.
Step 1: Harvest
Argan fruit is harvested between July and September. During harvest time, the women spend many days in the Argan forest. The fruit is left hanging on the branches until it falls off. The women collect the fallen fruit in baskets or bags. On average, the fruit of one Argan tree yields one to two cups of oil
Step 2. Sun-Drying
After harvesting, the fruit is spread out and dried for several days in the warm summer sun, until there is no moisture left in the fruit pulp. Dried fruit can be stored for up to five years. The Berbers always keep stock of dried Argan fruit to hedge against years of poor harvest.
Step 3. Removal of Seeds
Before the oil is extracted, the Berber women remove the seeds from the Argan fruit. This is a two step process. First, the pulp is removed from the Argan nut. Secondly, the hard Argan nut is cracked with a traditional hammer stone, and the seeds are removed. This preparation work is the most labor intensive work within Argan oil production. A woman needs about three hours to process 40 lb of Argan fruit required to yield one cup of Argan oil.
Step 4. Roasting
Traditionally, the Berber women roasted the Argan seeds before extracting the oil. The roasting was required to harden the seeds, allowing for easier oil extraction. As a side benefit, the roasting led to a wonderful nutty taste of the oil. Today, only seeds for culinary Argan oil are roasted. Cosmetic oil is extracted from raw seeds with mechanical presses.
Step 5: Oil Extraction
Traditional oil extraction is also a two step process. First, the seeds are crushed into a oil rich paste with help of a stone mill. In a second step, the paste is constantly kneaded to slowly release the oil. Today, cosmetic Argan oil is extracted with modern screw presses, not manually.
Step 6: Decanting
The final step of traditional Argan oil production was decanting and straining. The oil was allowed to sit for at least three days before being strained. Nowadays, cold-pressed cosmetic oil is filtered after decanting, using modern filtering equipment.
Berber woman produces Argan oil manually using a stone mill
David v Goliath - ThePrivate Industry Take-over of the Argan Sector
The Argan oil commercialization efforts of the women co-operatives resulted in very encouraging early successes. However, with the demand for Argan oil rapidly growing, private businesses took over. Today, less than 10% of Argan oil exported from Morocco is made by the women co-operatives. Most Argan oil sold internationally is produced by private companies, often using cheap raw material of questionable quality. These companies use industrial high pressure presses to maximize yield, with the unintended consequence that the oil heats up to temperatures way above the limit for cold-pressing. Some producers extract Argan oil with the help of chemical solvents. Most of the industrially produced Argan oil is deodorized to hide impurities. Not having to worry about fair wages, these mass producers are able to undercut the women co-operatives, squeezing them out of the market. To add insut to injury, some of these companies use images of Berber women to suggest that their oil is benefiting rural women. Being mainly interested in profiteering from the booming Argan market, these companies are rarely involved in any social or sustainability programs projects.