Keeping the ‘tree of life’ alive

The key to preserving a unique ecological and economic resource is environmental education. Schoolchildren in Morocco start with the local argan tree

 

We often don’t notice what’s in front of our noses. And it’s in that failure to pay attention to the obvious and ubiquitous – until it’s gone – that many of our environmental problems are rooted.

The landscape as you travel from Essaouira to Agadir, parallel to Morocco’s Atlantic coast, is unique and certainly eye catching. For much of the journey a semi-natural savannah, dominated almost entirely by argan trees, stretches as far as the eye can see.

In a dry winter, like this one, the ground is mostly bare of other plants, and the deep green foliage of the scattered trees contrasts vividly with the burnt ochre of the soil. They look as though they are growing in a desert. They almost are.

The argan, which they call the tree of life, is native only to this region. It rarely prospers if transplanted elsewhere. Which is one reason the edible oil its nuts produce is currently the most highly priced in the world.

Berbers have exploited argan oil for its culinary, cosmetic and medicinal benefits for many centuries. With its dark, nutty flavour, it has become an ultrachic international alternative to olive oil; stars like Madonna rave about its “anti-ageing” properties in skin creams.

Ageing argan

The argan ages pretty well itself: it is one of the oldest existing tree species, evolving some 80,000 years ago. Individuals are survivors as well: some produce fruit for up to 200 years.

It’s a tree of life for another reason. The argan forest is the last green ecosystem before the Sahara, “the limit of desertification in our country,” in the words of Houssaine Aitzaouit, who runs an environmental-education programme for children in Smimou, south of Essaouira.

The argan’s roots can bore down 70m to find water. They stabilise the soil, making the tree literally the foundation species for all other life in the forest. In spring and summer, flowering plants carpet the ground nourished by its leaf litter; its branches offer habitat to birds, mammals, reptiles and insects.

Yet, despite the argan tree’s local ubiquity and useful products, Aitzaouit repeatedly finds that schoolchildren coming to Smimou from urban areas rarely recognise it. They have not even noticed it en route. Just as some Irish children think milk comes from a Tetra Pak factory, Moroccan children think their cooking oil comes from plastic bottles.

“Often, when I show them 10 plants that grow in the region today, the only one they can name is the prickly-pear cactus, which comes from Mexico,” he says. “They don’t see so much of what is in front of their eyes.”

By the time they get back on the bus home Aitzaouit has done his utmost to refocus their attention. He has few material resources – his displays are painstakingly home made, not touch screen. But he has energy and imagination to burn, and finds a dozen ways to engage the children with the natural world.

He starts outside, dividing them into small groups. He names each one “mountain”, eagle”, “tree” and so on, challenging each group to tell the others something about what they do in the world.

Then comes the plant-recognition test, after which he himself becomes the argan tree’s spokesman. He stands under its branches and produces a series of signs through which he explains its ecological functions.

“I give you fuel” and “I give you oil” are fairly obvious openers, but the children are more surprised, and puzzled, by such lines as “My thorns protect birds’ nests” or “My flowers feed bees.”

“I want to get them thinking about relationships in nature,” he says, “and their importance to us, to understand that birds eat many of the insects that damage our crops. You have to pay for pesticides, but birds are free – if we do not persecute them. But other insects are vital to farmers as pollinators.”

Social system

The exploitation of the forest is based on a complex social system, Aitzaouit says. Some of it is privately owned, but most of it is common land, open to collective grazing and browsing. The valuable right to harvest the nuts from particular trees is usually based not on ownership, as such, but on custom and practice linked to specific families.

Traditionally, the Berbers have understood that the most sustainable (and easiest) way to gather the nuts and do the least damage to the tree is to wait until they fall to the ground. But the increasing tendency is to harvest too early, beating the fruit aggressively out of the trees, because nuts lying on the ground can readily be stolen.

Almost half the forest has vanished in the past century, and the tree density of the remainder has declined by 70 per cent. The biggest threats in the past were charcoal production and attempts to convert the land to cultivation.

Today the biggest menace is thought to be overbrowsing, as goat herds expand (see panel). Limited browsing does little damage, and probably promotes new growth. But watching a herd of goats flow through an argan grove, swarming up any horizontal branches, is scarily like watching locusts consume a crop field.

Aitzaouit believes this problem is also exacerbated by climate change. Goats normally prefer grazing ground plants to browsing trees. But a series of exceptionally dry winters means that for several months no ground plants are available.

And so the forces driving degradation in the argan forest are both local and global – and interlinked. It will be challenging to conserve this special natural heritage for another century. But encouraging children to notice it is an essential starting point.

Aitzaouit wants the children to feel proud that this unique tree flourishes in their country and, through that, to realise their responsibility for conserving the argan forest – “for all humanity”, as Unesco has declared the region a Biosphere Reserve.

The argan tree’s last line is always the same: “My only homeland is Morocco. ”

Win-win? ‘Commercialise to conserve’ strategy

What we consume has environmental and social impacts elsewhere. If you buy argan oil or cosmetics in Ireland, for example, are you harming or helping the argan forest and people of Morocco?

The argan-oil boom has been closely linked with a market-based conservation strategy that could be summed up as “commercialise to conserve”.

It is based on the notion of a win-win outcome: poor rural communities benefit from the sustainable exploitation of a natural resource, incentivising them to protect and restore the ecosystem.

Travis Lybbert of the University of California, Davis, working with Moroccan colleagues, has researched the impact of the oil boom on the argan region over 10 years.

His findings: some rural families have benefited, but outsiders benefit more. Conservation of mature argan trees has often improved, but the boom does not incentivise reforestation. Instead families tend to invest profits in increasing their goat herds.

It seems the market can complement conservation measures. But it is not a replacement for institutional support, research investment and science-based regulation.

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