International Green Week: Morocco’s Liquid Gold

15.01.2016 – The Berbers call it the ‘Tree of Life’. But it is only in recent years that Morocco has discovered the true value of the argan tree and its oil for people, the environment and the economy.

Owing to its special composition, argan oil, also referred to as Morocco’s ‘liquid gold’, is used in award-winning restaurants, medicine and natural cosmetics. It is extracted from the fruit of the argan tree, which is almost exclusively endemic to Morocco’s south-western region.

‘The tree is highly resilient, does not need much water and neither fertiliser nor pesticides. It is able to survive dry periods thanks to its roots that grow deep into the soil,’ says environmental expert Michael Gajo from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH. The argan tree also preserves biodiversity and, with its sprawling root system, prevents soil erosion through wind and rain, thus helping combat the desertification of fertile land.

Endangered stocks

Originally, the argan forests flourished across a region covering around 60,000 square kilometres, but through to the 1990s, forest stocks declined rapidly, mainly due to damage caused by goats or camels and by deforestation for firewood. In places, trees were also chopped down to make way for massive fields or for greenhouses.

For a long time, the economic value of the argan tree went unnoticed. Through to the mid-1990s, there was hardly any marketing of argan oil. The women who traditionally pressed the oil by hand simply sold it by the roadside. It was around this time that Morocco’s High Commissariat for Forests, Water and the Fight against Desertification started to roll out various protection measures. Commissioned by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), GIZ supported training activities, most of which benefited women who, in Morocco’s Berber culture, are traditionally responsible for producing argan oil. Their training focused on using the argan tree sustainably, processing its fruit and oil efficiently, and planting new trees. As Gajo explains, ‘You can only protect something if people value it.’ Hence, if selling argan oil generates income, the tree will no longer be culled for firewood and the argan forests will no longer be converted into rangeland.

Jobs and world heritage status

Today, the argan woodlands are a public good managed by the forestry commissariat and the value they generate benefits both the government and the rural population. The women who harvest and press the fruit have since formed around 25 cooperatives. ‘This means that some 2,000 families now have an improved and secure income,’ says Gajo. In twenty years, a profitable industry producing oil for use in foods and cosmetics has emerged.

To enable this sustainable development to continue, GIZ – again operating on behalf of BMZ – has delivered assistance to Morocco’s National Agency for the Development of Oasis Areas and the Argan Forest (ANDZOA) in devising a strategy. Nowadays a few hectares of argan woodland are being reforested every year and their commercial exploitation promoted. Moreover, investments are being made in jobs, education and basic supplies for the local population. In 2014, UNESCO declared the argan forest a Natural World Heritage Site.