Single standing tree with gnarly trunks, the occasional goat balancing on the thorn covered branches, trying to get at the small, dark leaves and the fruit – that is what Morocco’s argan tree forests look like. They are indigenous only to Morocco and shape the character of the landscape that lies between the coastal cities and the Atlas Mountains. The excellent properties of argan nut oil are well known and Moroccan women have used it for cooking and cosmetics for ages. To Zoubida Charrouf, professor at the university in Rabat, the benefits of argan oil are important, but secondary. ‘The argan trees are like a green curtain’, she says*, ‘they are the last barrier between us and the desert. Once the trees go the sand comes.’

Zoubida Charrouf is a phytochemist and has been studying argan trees since the mid 80s. It was a time when in Morocco, too, cities started to grow and new townships came up everywhere. To make space about 600 ha of argan trees were felled per year. In the long run the loss of the argan trees would have led to the desertification of the whole region. Zoubida Charrouf knew that the trees would only survive if their protection made economic sense – argan oil seemed the perfect solution. From skin cream to hair care – the cosmetic industry uses argan oil for a wide variety of products. The only question was: the women had until then used traditional methods to press argan oil for their own consumption, would they be able to produce large quantities in a quality suitable for export?

Together with a few volunteers Zoubida Charrouf started to work with a group of women and in 1996 they formed the first argan oil co-operative. With money from international donors a small but state of the art oil press was bought and by working out a strict protocol for filling the bottles the shelf life of the oil could be increased from 3 to 6 months to 2 years. That got international cosmetic companies interested and suddenly argan oil was in great demand. Today more than 2 million people in Morocco are involved in the production of argan oil, says Zoubida Charrouf. Existing trees are being looked after, new saplings are being planted and by now it looks as if the ‘green curtain’ is not shrinking anymore and the advance of the desert has been stopped.

In 2011, one of the argan oil women’s co-operatives, Tighanimine, was Fairtrade certified, says Imane Chafchaouni-Bussy. She works for the non-governmental organisation Ibn Al Baytar (its president is Zoubida Charrouf…) and has helped set up Tighanimine from the start. Making the oil still involves a lot of manual labour, she says. Hopefully it will stay that way because for the women it means enough work and an income. From the middle of July to the end of August the fruit (with the nuts inside) ripen. The women collect and store them: untreated the fruit will keep for months and can be processed in batches. The women remove the fruit pulp to extract the nut which is then cracked open between to stones. Finally the kernels are sorted, roasted and pressed. One woman needs about a day to crack enough nuts for one kilo of kernels – to produce one litre of oil one needs about 2.5 kg of kernels…

Traditionally only women have been involved in the argan oil production. The fact that they now can make money with it has improved their social standing considerably. ‘In the beginning there were only widows and a few divorcees who were willing to work with us’, says Zoubida Charrouf, today there are women from every age group. ‘Most of the women have no education and that’s why we offer literacy classes’, says Imane Chafchaouni-Bussy. In Tighanimine women now do the accounting and use a computer to deal with orders. The issue of traceability is the reason why up to today only one of co-operatives is Fairtrade certified. Only if the trees are family owned, as is the case in Tighanimine, the nuts can be traced from the tree to the oil in the bottle. It’s a rather rare situation, most groups collect the nuts from trees growing on state land. Tighanimine has over 60 members. Often the women spend the money they earn to send their children to secondary schools. Life has become a little easier, in the Moroccan summer a fridge is no luxury but a necessity and the Fairtrade premium even pays for a few extras – from new clothes to a television set for the family.

In the meantime Zoubida Charrouf thinks about the future. She thinks it’s a bad idea for co-operatives to depend solely on the production of argan oil. At present she is analysing the plants that grow near the argan trees for possible medicinal, healing or skin nourishing properties – maybe the women can make use of some other plants in future, too.

* Source: CNN Interview 2014