As Ayesha begins to crack her second sack of nuts of the day, she wipes her hand across her forehead. The sun in southern Morocco is hot and the work physically demanding. She looks over at her neighbour Naila who has already tipped her bag of hard, acorn-like nuts on to the ground and is expertly wielding her tools – a well-worn grey stone to extract what looks like a smaller nut.
Her movements show the deft confidence of someone who has performed the same movements over and over again. Half a dozen other women sitting around on the ground are all occupied in the same common task of forcing open the uncooperative argan nut so as to extract its valuable oil with its multiple uses.
This scene is one that has remained unaltered for as long as Amazigh women have carried out the laborious task. But there is a difference that is not visible – and it is one of economics. These women who live in Ida Outanane a region of contrasts rising from the Atlantic Ocean to the foothills of the Western High Atlas 6,560 feet above sea level, are part of project that aims to protect the argan tree and promote local industry focused on the oil.
The women are getting paid a small sum to do this work, as well as keeping enough nuts and oil for their own domestic needs. “We are grateful to get paid for what we’ve always done,” says Ayesha. “It feels as though our efforts are now being recognised. My daughters will have a better future.” Although there are still lots of argan nuts for the likes of Ayesha and Naila to crack, overall the argan economy is not flourishing for the benefit of local people.
A slow-growing, spiny knotted thorn tree similar in some respects to the olive, and limited to an area roughly within a 160 kilometre radius of the Souss Valley, the argan tree is notoriously difficult to transplant. The argan forest itself is a unique ecosystem combining subtropical temperatures and mist from the Atlantic Ocean and is found in the southern and western parts of Ida Outanane.
The forest gained UNESCO almost 20 years ago and is protected as a World Biosphere Reserve. Approximately 21 million trees grow in two million acres of forest able to survive up to levels of 1,500 metres and needing minimal amounts of rain. But other problems beset the argan tree. The over exploitation of the tree itself, the attempt to mass-produce its oil and the exodus of young people leaving the countryside for the opportunities cities offer have all taken a toll.
Although argan oil has gained traction in the West because of its health-giving properties, most of the profits go to foreign companies who buy in bulk and pocket huge profits by bottling, labeling and packaging outside the region. According to artist and Amazigh activist Abdullah Aourik, the tree is now being exploited with no thought for the future.
“The tree is the basis of life in all the little Berber villages,” he explains. “You meddle with it at the risk of destroying a whole way of life.” But those who traditionally live from the argan tree have little say in the management of the forest even though its roots, growing deep into the earth in search of water, help retain the soil, prevent erosion and provide the Amazigh with a livelihood.
Now this symbol of the Amazigh civilisation is being integrated into a wider plan to help subsistence farmers in the Ida Outanane The initiative aims to dovetail safeguarding the argan ecosystem with increasing income from honey production and ecotourism by drawing attention to the other attractions of the area.
Encouraging these local ventures take on new life requires efforts from many different people says Renée O’Sullivan who owns Riad Dar Haven with her husband. “This spot on the Atlantic coast attracts surfers from all over the world. “We’ve got involvement from local businesses cleaning up the beach and surrounding area of plastic. The slogan is keep it clean. Keep it zwine.”
A large, new coastal resort is developing rapidly between Tamraght and Taghazout, but visitors seeking the sort of peace and tranquility that is to be found at Rian Dar Haven can easily flit off for days in the Atlas where profound silence can be enjoyed along with the area’s unique flora and fauna, traditional architecture, the world’s oldest traditional apiary and extraordinary caves and rock drawings.
The region is clearly set for some sort of boom. As Elhassane Beraaouz, a university professor, explains there are several places that have significant ancient rock engravings. “If you want to see extraordinary animal pictures, the best sites are Ukas or Icht,” he says. “These show animals associated with the savannah and indicate that there has been huge climate change here in southern Morocco.”
Additionally there are curious examples of early Amazigh script etched in caves in another area of Ida Outanane. The rugged terrain and landscapes dotted with traditional architecture are paradise for hikers who enjoy the fresh air, splendid views and wild life. Marie France Bensoussane, the owner of Exclusive Morocco, says, “There are endless possibilities if you enjoy digging beneath the surface of the culture or if you are content to soak up the natural beauty of the place.”
But it really all comes down to that great provider of health, beauty and nutrition, the argan tree. According to Benedicte Westre Skog, the Norwegian founder of charity Argancare, around two million people live from the forest. “We cultivate, plant and grow trees with the participation of local people,” she explains. “They are the main beneficiaries of our project – and includes literacy workshops for women.”
Argancare are planting 2,500 young saplings and pruning more mature trees to give them new life and enhance oil production which can vary from half a litre to three litres per tree per year. The oil is used in massages at The Atlas Kasbah ecolodge which offers an insight into other aspects of Berber culture. A pleasant and relaxing place to stay it is surprisingly hidden in an astonishing location. If you want to avoid the ubiquitous, anodyne international hotel then stay here.
Today, the argan forest is diminishing rapidly and stands in great danger of eventually disappearing. During the course of the last century alone, the argan forest’s area has diminished by more than half while tree density in some areas is sixty-percent lower than it was only fifty years ago. If you want to play your part in reshaping the future of this vulnerable area, why not pay a visit.
For each tourist who comes and enjoys an authentic experience, the chances of the forest surviving are improved. The locals are sure to welcome you in a time honoured traditional way.
ARGANCARE: Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/argancare/