How Morocco's argan trees help fight the growing desert

There is an expanding international demand for argan oil, an organic healthcare product made from the fruit of Morocco’s native argan tree. But how are these plants tied to the country's battle against the growing Sahara desert?

Courtesy of: Roman Königshofer / Flickr
Courtesy of: Roman Königshofer / Flickr

The fruit of the argan tree is a little larger than an olive, and its oil is the most expensive edible oil on earth. The tree is helping keep Morocco's green areas from turning into wasteland, while also providing an income to local people.

Updated Nov 23, 2016

The North African nation of Morocco is 78 per cent desert and dry land. On its eastern and southern borders, the growing Sahara Desert is threatening to turn more of Morocco into a wasteland.


The Sahara is the largest desert on Earth, as well as the hottest. It spans 9.2 million square kilometres (3.6 million square miles), covering an area about the same size as the United States  and it's growing.

For centuries, Morocco’s main natural defence against the expanding desert has been its argan forests.

The forests create a buffer zone between Morocco's usable soil and the dead sands of the Sahara, preventing desertification. The trees protect the nation's water reserves and keep the soil alive.

The sparse argan trees may not seem like much of a defence, but they do the job of maintaining a barrier against the Sahara and preventing soil erosion, according to the  United Nations Development Programme. (UNDP)

Desertification is the technical word used to describe what happens to an area of dry but usable land that becomes an unusable desert. Even after rainfall, nothing grows in these areas because the soil is essentially dead.

According to the United Nations, the main cause of desertification is the removal of trees and plant cover. 

When trees are lost — either because they're cut down for fuel or timber, or if animals damage them by overfeeding — the roots die. 

The beating sun and harsh winds cause the dirt to be blown away which lead to soil erosion. 

In addition, when the shade from the tree is also lost, everything that it covered is also at risk. Any grass or bushes in the area of the tree's shade can also die from direct exposure to the sun. This can lead to more soil erosion and desertification.

A threat to the argan forests

Slightly larger than an olive, the argan fruit is usually harvested in July and August once it falls to the ground. This can be a race against the clock – goats often climb the trees, eating the harvest first. (AFP)

Argan oil, only grown in Morocco, is made by smashing — also called cold pressing — the small oily kernel inside the fruit. Oil extraction is a difficult and time consuming process and the resulting oil is expensive. It is also extremely rich in beneficial nutrients, including fatty acids and vitamin E and is in high demand for use in cosmetic and culinary purposes.

Producers are selling it and buying more goats from the profits. 

The increased goat population threatens the future of the forest because of over feeding and grazing -- goats enjoy the taste of the argan fruit.

Goats living in the area of Morocco's argan forests are a sign of the relative wealth of local villagers, but they also threaten the trees which the Berber people depend on for income. (Courtesy of Constantin Philippoff/Flickr)

"The centuries old practise of letting livestock herds graze in the Argan forest continues to severely damage the Argan forest’s ability to naturally regenerate," according to an article by the World Artisan Guild (WAG), a North Carolina company reselling argan products in the United States.

Protecting the argan forests

Due to the risk of the living barrier which keeps the Sahara at bay, the Kingdom of Morocco came up with a plan to protect the area.

In 1998, the Moroccan government and UNESCO declared the argan forests a "Biosphere Reserve".

"This forest species is extremely well adapted to drought and other environmentally difficult conditions. It is currently under the [sic] threat from excessive human exploitation," according to UNESCO.

Making the forest a protected area gave the trees a better chance at survival. The locals were educated on the importance of protecting the trees and limiting the harm that livestock did.

Recently, the Kingdom of Morocco announced plans to expand the forest and increase the number of argan trees by 25 percent. The aim was to create a much larger protective barrier and conserve the nation's water from the desert, while also converting carbon dioxide into oxygen – helping the global fight against climate change.

The women who run the argan oil industry

The majority of Morroco's argan oil industry is run by cooperatives of Berber women. The Berbers are an indigenous people who have lived in North Africa long before Arabs migrated to the continent from the Middle East. 

Dozens of small communities produce most of Morocco's argan oil. Berber women come together and work the kernels to extract the oil before selling it to brokers. The brokers help the product reach the international market, where it can be used as an ingredient in cosmetics and toiletries, or as cooking oil. (Flickr/Jessica)

These rural people are making money from the spike in the oil's popularity.

"Locals are benefiting from the argan boom in ways that may improve women’s welfare and alleviate persistent rural poverty," according to a paper published by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

But there's also a downside: 

"This benefit is at the risk of degrading the forest and the biodiversity that it sustains."

The villagers have been working together with the government to help protect the trees in the argan forest. They recognise that the forest and the oil are important to their future.

"There's nothing else like argan here. It's the main thing," said Rquia Elhjam, one of the women pounding nuts to produce the oil. She and other women call it their "wallet" – the source of much or all of their income.

Omar Elwafaii

TRTWorld, TRTWorld and agencies