ALN logo; link to Arid Lands NewsletterHome page No. 48, November/December 2000
Linkages between Cultural Diversity and Biodiversity

Biodiversity links to cultural identity in southwest Morocco: The situation, the problems and proposed solutions

by Yorgos Moussouris and Alan Pierce

" last we neared the coast and came suddenly into a forest of argan trees. On either side of us stretched away to the horizon what looked like orchards of old buttressed apricot or plum trees laden with ripening fruit. I could scarcely believe that I was in a natural forest and that the trees, centuries old, had not been planted by man."

David Fairchild, Exploring for Plants (1931, quoted in Morton and Voss, 1987)


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"Very few of the species with potential economic importance actually reach world markets," argued Edward O. Wilson in his book, The diversity of life. There, the distinguished conservationist relates that many plant species have significant food potential, but many remain obscure, known only to the native populations who use them. These species are not only important to the preservation of biodiversity, but their usage in areas of origin has defined people's lifestyles, setting the base for cultural diversity. This article describes such a case in an area in northwestern Africa, endowed with a unique natural wealth. The case refers to two key species and their usage by rural inhabitants of southwestern Morocco. Unfortunately, a forthcoming biocultural crisis might be imminent due to resource overuse. And even though the crisis will never reach magnitudes comparable to the ones observed in other arid regions of the planet, it could lead to severe ecosystem degradation and the disappearance of the distinctive lifestyle and cultural identity that thrives in this landscape.

The biodiversity significance of southwestern Morocco

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Essaouira is one of the main tourist destinations of the Moroccan Atlantic coast. The town is built on the site of an ancient Phoenician outpost colony, and in recent times has served as a vital sea fortress for the defense of the country. A handful of avid birdwatchers are drawn to the area each year by the rich bird fauna nesting on the offshore island of Mogador, but few of the town's visitors, who come to enjoy the beach and the traditional architecture, are cognizant of the natural wealth that surrounds the town. Even fewer tourists appreciate the tremendous biodiversity found inland in southwestern Morocco.

The region surrounding Essaouira is well forested, with diverse coverage spreading to more than 43% of the total land area. A mosaic of Mediterranean type assemblages characterizes the woodland, among them Juniperus phoenicea communities on the extensive coastal sand dune system and stands of Quercus ilex, evergreen oak, on more rocky ground. The area is a first-degree priority site for the Moroccan Ministry for Agriculture, in accordance with a national plan that seeks to increase the number of protected areas in the country. A number of endemic or threatened faunal and floral species exist in the region, such as Felis caracal algira, Crocidura russula yebalensis, Salvia interrupta, Bupleurum dumosum and Linaria ventricosa.

Araar and argan: Two important tree species

typical woodlands surrounding Essouaira, Morocco
Thumbnail link to image of argan and araar, ~34K file

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Two tree species are fundamentally important for biodiversity conservation and community welfare in Essaouira: the Araar tree (Tetraclinis articulata) and, of greater importance, the Argan tree (Argania spinosa). Following a brief overview of the araar tree and its importance, this article will mainly discuss the interrelation of Argania spinosa woodlands with rural life in Essaouira.

The araar tree, also known as sandarac tree, grows on hills inland from the coast. It is the sole species of a western North African endemic gymnosperm genus, exhibiting only small relic populations on the Iberian Peninsula and Malta. The species is listed as rare on the IUCN's Red List of plants, which notes that populations are vulnerable in Morocco.

araar tree
Thumbnail link to image of araar tree, ~31K file

Araar or sandarac yields a resin that is used in the production of lacquers and varnishes, and its timber has long been used for construction, furniture making and cabinetry. The tree was known in antiquity; the Greek philosopher and naturalist Theophrastus (born circa 370 BC) describes it in his History of Plants botany work (E III 7). According to Theophrastus, "thyon" (Tetraclinis) grows near the temple of Zeus at the Libyan Cyrene, looks like a cypress tree and has resistant wood and strong roots from which "... they make the most beautiful artifacts." Indeed, the araar woodlands of Essaouira are subject to increasing pressure as the tourism industry creates a growing demand for araar root handicrafts. The handicrafts industry is expanding while the local fishing economy is in decline, and many fishermen have abandoned their traditional time-demanding occupation to work as souvenir woodcarvers.

The Argan tree, or Morocco ironwood, grows on calcareous soils in the valleys between the hills of araar. An angiosperm, Argania spinosa is a spiny, evergreen tree, endemic to southwestern Morocco. The tree is long-lived, typically growing for as many as 125 to 150 years, with the oldest trees estimated to be anywhere from 250 to 400 years of age. Argan is a Tertiary relic species, the only member of the tropical Sapotaceae family occurring north of the Sahara and the single species of the genus Argania. Its ecological and social values make argan one of North Africa's most precious tree species. Argan woodlands cover an area of approximately 700,000 to 800,000 hectares, about 7% of the total forest cover of Morocco, in a region where rainfall hardly exceeds 200 - 300 mm/year, and at times stays well below 120 mm/year.

As with araar, there is a long history and knowledge of argan use. The ancient Phoenicians were likely aware of its existence. Written records of argan oil extraction date back to the 13th century AD. The oil was imported to Europe during the 18th century, but was pushed out of the market because of its strong flavor and the popularity of olive oil.

Argania spinosa is a keystone species for landscape stability in southwestern Morocco. It shields thin soils from erosion, especially in overgrazed lands where soil water absorption capacity is diminished. Pasture grasses grow in the tree's shade, secured from the extreme evapotranspiration conditions resulting from direct exposure to sunlight. Argan roots facilitate water infiltration and aquifer replenishment. In the areas to the extreme south of the its range, argan woodlands form a green belt against desert encroachment.

The argan tree and douar cultural identity

thumbnail of Berber douar
Thumbnail link to image of Berber douar, ~30K file

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Berbers inhabit the lands around Essaouira in villages known as douars, which are actually clusters of extended families. Berbers descend from the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa, speak their own languages and lead a distinct lifestyle. A unique culture flourishes around Argania spinosa, which, although not a cultivated plant, has been supporting the survival of rural Berbers for centuries. Argan is the central element of a multi-use silvo-pastoral system that the Berbers manage for a large number of products such as oil, fodder, charcoal, building materials and fuelwood. In this way, the subsistence of 2 million people in rural Morocco is ensured, with argan systems being the anchor that keeps them from moving to large urban centers(where an unfavorable cultural, employment and housing situation awaits most of them). Statistics reveal the importance of the tree: it is estimated that 800,000 working days per year are consumed for fuelwood collection and 20,000,000 working days per year are consumed just for oil extraction. Production of one liter of oil requires one and a half days of work.

thumbnail of argan fruit
Thumbnail link to image of argan fruit, ~28K file

Oil is the most valuable product derived from the tree. The plum-sized fruit contains one to three kernels with an oil content exceeding 50%. Extraction of oil for the family is responsibility of the Berber housewife, who is bonded for life in a love-hate relationship with the tree. The procedure is tedious: the dried flesh is separated from the nut, the seeds are lightly roasted, ground and mixed with warm water. Subsequent rinsing separates the floating oil. Approximately 100 kg of seed yield 1 to 2 kg of oil and 2 kg of pressed "cake" - a pasty by-product - plus 25 kg of dried husk. The brownish, peanut-butter-flavored "cake," the "amlu," is sweetened and eaten during breakfast.

The oil itself has a distinctive flavor, resembling that of walnut oil. The ratio of total unsaturated to total saturated fatty acids is about 4 to 5, similar to that in olive oil. Argan oil has high nutritional value: it contains about 80% polyunsaturated fatty acids of which 30% is linoleic acid, one of the most important essential fatty acids in human diet. The oil is also used for lighting and soap manufacturing, and occasionally included in the manufacture of cosmetics.

As it is relatively perishable, Argania spinosa oil is mostly consumed by producing families or sold at local markets. It is also sold in some stores in Moroccan cities. It is very popular among the 600,000 Moroccan immigrants in Israel, who are willing to pay prices as high as $43 per liter (ten times greater than the price of olive oil). The average yield of argan fruits per tree is 8 kg. Global production of argan fruits is estimated to be about 350,000 tons, or about 50 billion fruits. The region of Essaouira produces between 1,000 to 2,000 tons of oil per year, corresponding very roughly to a local population of 60,000-120,000 trees, producing 142 million to 286 million fruits per year. Apart from oil, argan fruit, foliage and oil extraction by-products constitute valuable food resources for livestock. The hard, heavy and durable argan timber gives good charcoal and construction wood, and is also used to fashion plows, tool handles and household utensils.

Argan woodland degradation and the response to the problem

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The present range of argan is confined to the Agadir region but was once thought to extend much farther north, perhaps even 200 km or more (to Qualidia, Safi and El Jadida). Present distribution of the species has been postulated to be a mere half of its extent in the late 1800s. Population pressure, in combination with demands for charcoal and wood during both world wars, decimated many argan populations. In 1925, a law that restricts argan usage rights to native populations of the Agadir region was passed as a measure to protect the species. Despite this, the Moroccan ironwood bends under the pressure of a suite of tremendous problems.

Nature has not endowed the tree with fast regeneration rates. Some attribute poor argan regeneration to overgrazing; the disappearance of spiny "nurse" plants such as Rhus pentaphyllum and Zizyphus spp.; the cleaning of spiny argan brush, which also protected the seedlings, from beneath trees; and intensive agriculture (and plowing) in proximity to the trees. Others speculate that argan seeds germinate best only after passing through the digestive tract of grazing animals. Some experts even believe that the tree does not presently regenerate at all. The plant is capable of producing stump sprouts when felled.

thumbnail image of overgrazing
Thumbnail link to image of animals overgrazing argan, ~34K file

Before the 20th century, a fragile balance existed between grazing pressure and regeneration. This balance was disrupted when greater numbers of people moved with their flocks to the southwest of the country. Woodland degradation subsequently commenced with the abandonment of traditional management practices and their replacement by intensive management activities that accompanied increasing demographic pressure. Over-collection of fuelwood, unsustainable fruit gathering, heavy grazing, intensive plowing and the development of irrigated agriculture added to the existing natural regeneration problems. The current minimum regression rate of argan woodlands has been estimated to be about 600 hectares per year.

Prompt national and international reaction has focused on the degradation of the argan woodlands, addressing many aspects of its origin. UNESCO has declared the 25,000 square kilometer Arganeraie Biosphere Reserve, while the Moroccan Ministry for Agriculture has proposed the establishment of a National Park on public lands. In some locations scientists have experimented with artificial pollination projects in an attempt to assist the regeneration of argan. Established women's cooperatives have expanded their activities to reforestation projects. Cosmetic manufacturers promote sound oil production for products consumed in the European market. And in a recent effort, the government of Israel has attempted to domesticate the tree in the Negev desert.

An example: The involvement of WWF MedPO

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Environmental NGOs are also active in argan conservation. Among them is the Mediterranean Programme of WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature, known in North America as World Wildlife Fund). This Programme funded start-up activities in the Essaouira area as part of a Mediterranean-wide conservation project (managed by one of the authors) promoting the development of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) as a means to buffer necessary protection measures in several Mediterranean biodiversity "hotspots." The project was implemented at the local level by the Association Chouala pour L' Education et Culture, a Moroccan NGO. The coordinator, based at Essaouira, is able to speak the local Berber language. Initial project activities focused on establishing links with Forestry Authorities, conducting environmental education activities at douar schools and raising awareness through argan information days for the general public and tourists.

The Programme has envisioned further involvement by expanding its educational and awareness action programs to include operational activities. The success of this part of the project depends on availability of funding and the forging of strong alliances with local communities. A central task will be the production of an Action Plan, including the development of specific management guidelines for integrated ecosystem conservation of Essaouira argan woodlands. The Action Plan will emerge from local participation processes with involvement of all stakeholders and shall constitute the basis for the establishment of the protected area in Essaouira recommended by Moroccan authorities. A number of economic activities for the area are foreseen, the principal one being the installment of a communal, mechanized unit for oil production. In parallel, studies will be implemented with an aim toward furthering the understanding of argan biology, regeneration and fruit yield. An investigation of argan oil markets will be necessary to determine target consumers for the product.

The communal oil production unit should be located in an appropriately selected site within the douar cluster. The facility needs to resolve the multiple problems associated with oil production: high intensity of labor input, time-demanding processes, non-hygienic extraction conditions, impurities and other quality issues, and rapid product degradation. Thus a standardized quality production procedure will need to be defined for the operation. The procedure will be tied to the resource management procedures included in the Action Plan.

The project plans to launch an additional unit, which shall address conservation issues related to araar trees. This will include a woodcarving atelier for the training of artisans who are willing to change their practices and carve handicrafts from raw wood material other than araar.

Argan oil certification: conservation of biodiversity vs. cultural continuity

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A central aspect of WWF MedPO's project was to investigate the certification potential of NTFPs and its applicability to environmental conservation. During the past fifteen years, certification has emerged as a tool that verifies "sustainable production" of natural products, using ecolabels to communicate with concerned consumers in the marketplace. There are several certification systems, each targeting specific objectives, including health, the well-being of producers and the minimization of the environmental and cultural impact of forest operations. In the case of argan oil and woodcarvings from Essaouira, this entails adoption of practices with less deleterious effects than traditional management practices. These practices should deliver economic and other benefits to producers and local communities, and should not challenge prevailing cultural norms.

The central question is whether certification is feasible, applicable and desirable in Essaouira. Throughout the Mediterranean region a significant part of the woodlands are not timber-producing but are managed, as in Essaouira, for a number of non-timber forest products. In southern European countries, which have a more developed, not subsistence, "green" market - especially in urban centers - certification of a product like argan oil can have positive effects. However, the situation is complicated in countries where many non-timber products are consumed for subsistence. Certification could have a negative impact by altering production modes, power relationships, traditional socio-cultural and economic norms and prompting export of once locally consumed goods or forcing consumption of cheaper substitutes.

Of particular concern is the cost of certification to producers, which is higher for small units and producers than it is for large operations. Most certification systems require a written management plan to be in place and operating. This is difficult in the case of the Essaouira douars, where uncontrolled harvesting of argan fruit exceeds sustainable harvest yield levels and is accommodated by numerous practices - mainly overgrazing - that put pressure on the resource and are a direct response to demographic pressures. Such issues are obviously not easily addressed by a certification system.

Added to this issue is the non-existent demand for green products among the locals in Essaouira. It might be possible to promote the product to the international market (culinary and cosmetic uses) in a way that much-needed economic benefits could be returned to the producing communities. This is in accordance with what is argued in the introduction of the article for non-exploited, unknown, valuable food resource species. However, a widespread argan oil certification system might be accompanied by additional, unwanted complications given that currently, the oil is often consumed for subsistence. The increased cost of the product could push it away from the local market and turn local consumers towards buying cheaper substitutes. Cultural uniqueness, based upon a lifestyle threaded around argan oil production and consumption, may be vulnerable to the very effort that seeks to preserve the endangered resource.

Another issue that relates to the change of lifestyle is cultural disruption and the participation of women in the decision-making mechanism. In the communities where the mechanized oil production unit will operate, local women will have much more time to invest in other activities. A question that arises is who shall decide about the type of activities to pursue. Certainly, women currently feel restrained by the amount of time they invest in oil production. However, the decision to participate in a project that will provide more available time should be up to them and should come through the necessary participatory planning process.

The cost and expertise necessary to create a certifiable management plan and monitoring system for argan woodlands may require the input of outside technical and financial assistance. A certain level of regulation over access to the argan resource (for fruit collection, fuel and use as fodder) will need to be arrived at and enforced with the full participation of local residents. Ongoing educational efforts will thus be critical to effect a change in attitude toward the argan resource and foster further dialogue on potential participatory management plans. Efforts to establish and maintain argan regeneration will be critical if any certification program is ultimately to sanction the resource as sustainably managed. This may imply a blend of measures, including limiting the timing and intensity of grazing in certain areas, leaving spiny debris to protect seedling establishment, planting from nursery stock and perhaps even some limited use of coppicing. A final technical concern involves conserving genetic diversity, which research has shown to be quite high, within and across argan populations. At present rates of diminishment and fragmentation, the study of gene flow among remaining argan forests may be critical to their ultimate survival, and may need to be included as a special topic of concern in certification assessments (e.g., identification, mapping and conservation of trees with rare alleles).

The situation is different for woodcarving products in Essaouira coming from araar and other wooden materials. The handicrafts industry mostly caters to tourists and provides a luxury product. A certification initiative could certainly benefit natural conservation of woodlands in Essaouira and local communities by adding value to the sold product. Consumers would likely be willing to pay a green premium, especially if they were made aware of the negative environmental impacts of uncertified products. However, even in the case of certified carvings, particular attention should focus on the decline of the fishing and araar-resin-producing industries, caused in part by the burgeoning tourist industry that has lured workers into the souvenir trade. This is a cultural preservation issue that certification needs to examine carefully.

Ecotourism, natural and cultural conservation

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Additional WWF MedPO plans include the design of tours and trails across the extensive coastal dune and araar woodlands and through the argan douars, with communal operated hostels built along trails for visitors who seek lodging. Successful ecotourism plans depend upon conservation of rare elements of the physical landscape and the attendant lifestyle found in such settings. This lifestyle needs to be genuine and impart a sense that it can stand on its own; supporting people and ecotourism should come not as "subsidy" to it, but as an additional economic benefit. Situations of sole dependency on the tourism industry should be avoided; they create a superficial image of well-being and can be dangerous, as the tourism market often depends on factors outside the destination areas (recessions in developed countries, regional conflicts, political destabilization, tourism fads, etc.). Finally, any ecotourism plan having the tendency to "fossilize" the dynamic, social evolution of communities should be avoided.


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Argan and araar woodland conservation issues are typical of the plight of forest resources in northern Africa. Sound management of these resources should be a priority, as their loss will lead to the extinction of important species and will have adverse effects on the lifestyles of people who subsist on the woodlands. Currently, despite income coming from tourism, the social problems in the area of Essaouira - mainly poverty, illiteracy, immigration, lack of infrastructure, urbanization and decline of the fishing industry - keep increasing. In addition, the degradation of natural resources in the area is a direct result of increasing development associated with tourism and deterioration of the social conditions of local human populations. Environmental degradation in southwest Morocco may never lead to the extremes of famine appearing in other arid regions of the globe. However, the accelerating environmental misuse in the region may force a future crisis that will be unable to integrate, in a balanced manner, local natural resources with the needs of human inhabitants. And this will consequently lead to the disappearance of a unique cultural identity rooted in these resources.


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Author information

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Yorgos Moussouris is an independent consultant to "Alcyon," an Athens-based environmental firm. He can be reached for comment at:
PO Box 18003
GR 116 10
tel/fax: +30-1-724-1806

Alan Pierce can be reached for comment at:
Hardscrabble Associates
1061 Mountainview
Waterbury, Vermont 05676
tel: +1-802-244-6257
fax: 1-802-244-6258

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