January 3, 2006

Prized Moroccan Argan Oil Faces Cloudy Future

By Charles Dick

TIOUT, Morocco (Reuters) - Tree-climbing goats, a centuries-old Berber tradition and an evergreen tree combine to produce Morocco's argan oil, prized by locals and enthusiasts abroad for its culinary and cosmetic qualities.

The golden oil comes from the seed of the argan tree which grows almost exclusively in the harsh environment of the southwest of the North African country, near the Sahara.

The tree is so hardy it can stay dormant for years during times of drought before bursting into leaf when rain falls.

Also called Moroccan ironwood, its oil was sold at trading posts of the Phoenicians, although the tree dates back millions of years to the tertiary period of Earth's history.

Now it is under threat, with more than a third of Morocco's argan forest having vanished in less than a century. It is used by villagers for firewood and stripped of its foliage and fruit by foraging animals.

To try to protect it, the U.N. agency UNESCO has created a 2.5-million-hectare Biosphere Reserve, implementing a program to replant argan trees which are notoriously difficult to regenerate. Researchers need a breakthrough in achieving easy germination from seed and large-scale transplanting from cuttings.

Local Berber women also need it to survive, since it provides them with a livelihood. They have overcome deeply conservative rural Muslim customs to work in cooperatives to produce the oil commercially.

Argan oil adds a distinctive nutty flavor to a salad or Moroccan tajine (stew) and is an essential ingredient for the Berber delicacy amlou -- an aphrodisiac according to practitioners of traditional medicine -- when it is mixed in with ground almonds and honey.

Its properties also mean it is used in an anti-wrinkle cream as well as a nail and hair conditioner.

And the goats?

The nimble black animals tended by Berber shepherds climb into the twisting limbs of the tree, which has a short trunk even though it can grow to 8 to 10 meters (26 to 33 feet) high, to feed on the bright yellow, olive-sized fruit.

Once the beasts spit out or excrete the indigestible oval brown seeds inside the fruit, the shepherds collect them to be cracked open, dried and their valuable oil extracted.


Traditional methods require about 15 hours to obtain a liter (1.75 pints) of oil, but mechanization has speeded up the process and modern production methods bypass the need to separate the seeds from the goats' dung.

Age-old customs persist, however, in remoter areas.

The fruit is now mostly harvested from the trees in September and bans on grazing in some parts of the forest allow the ripe fruit to fall naturally to the ground for collection.

The trees, which can live for two centuries and are properly named argania spinosa, are vital to the local economy of the Berber community, helping to stem a rural exodus to the cities.

Zoubida Charrouf, a researcher at Rabat's Mohamed V University, says about 2,000 women are employed in nine cooperatives to produce the oil and their output this year could be as high as 30 tons, against 20 tons last year. The cooperatives employ only a fraction of the total work force in the industry, which is more than 20,000.

"What we have achieved is to make argan oil known internationally," Charrouf told Reuters. "All our scientific research has raised awareness of the value of the oil."

However, she says some employers outside the cooperatives pay as little as one euro ($1.18) per day.

"The workers who produce the oil are not profiting from it. We (in the cooperatives) pay four euros a day and we think that should be the minimum rate," says Charrouf, who has been a prime campaigner organizing women workers in the industry.

About 40 women aged 18 to 50 work at the Tiout cooperative against the spectacular backdrop of the snow-capped Atlas mountains, sitting on the floor to strip the fruit's dried flesh and using stones to crack open the nuts to reach the kernels.

These are lightly roasted then pressed to produce the oil, with the residue used as cattle feed.

"It's hard for us to earn money," says Aisha, sitting like the others in a room near sacks full of fruit they must process. Many of the women's fingers are bandaged, injured by the heavy stones, but they say the chance to work has changed their lives.

Half a dozen veiled Berber women in brightly colored dress traveled that day to the cooperative from the mountains. Word of the opportunities offered by the cooperative has spread.

"They were astonished to see how you can work here," said the cooperative's Bouchra Errokhissi, who says divorced women or those living alone were given priority when seeking work. "But I don't know whether we will have room for them."

A much larger site has been marked out on the opposite side of the road for a new complex including a restaurant and facilities for tourists, but work has yet to start and funding still has to be finalized, says Errokhissi.


The deep roots of argan trees, which cover about 800,000 hectares (2 million acres) to the north and south of the resort of Agadir along the Atlantic coast and eastwards toward the Atlas mountains, help bind the soil and keep the desert at bay.

Berbers use argan oil in many ways, such as for cooking, in traditional medicine and to make soap, so that it provides part of the livelihood for about 3 million people.

The women's cooperatives, set up originally with funding from the principality of Monaco, are linked in the Targanine group to produce the oil in provinces around Agadir.

France is the biggest export market, followed by Germany, Belgium, Italy, Japan and Canada.

Up to 3 kg (6.6 pounds) of kernels are needed to produce a liter of oil. The tree begins to bear fruit when it is five years old and is most productive about half a century later.

While argan oil's aphrodisiac powers might be challenged, Charrouf says its regenerative effects on the skin and use as an anti-inflammatory agent are scientifically proven.

It is rich in vitamin E, anti-oxidants and essential fatty acids and can be used to lower cholesterol, she says.