Monday, October 29, 2007

Morocco's argan tree gets a boost

Nearly 18 months on, the Tamounte project to plant and educate Sousse residents about the argan tree continues to show promise. Organisers hope the oil's growing popularity on the international market and better conservation efforts will contribute to the tree's sustainable cultivation.

A forestation project for the argan tree which began in March 2006 is being assessed for a report due to come out in January 2008. The Tamounte conservation project has involved the planting of 42 hectares with more than 6,700 seedlings of the threatened species.

The argan tree, once believed to have covered much of the Maghreb, is now found only in south-western Morocco. Reportedly, only 8,600 square kilometres of the tree remain, and it is disappearing at an estimated rate of 500 square kilometres per year. Although the tree's nuts provide husks for livestock and oil for cooking and medicinal purposes, many of the trees have been cut down for firewood and to clear land for other agricultural uses.

Tamounte project director Mohammed Bendaoud says the main thrust of the operation lies in reforesting the argan tree while preserving its economic contribution to the regional economy. Argan oil is used in Moroccan cuisine and medicine and has grown popular in Europe and North America for both cooking and cosmetic purposes.

Bendaoud said the Tamounte project embodies a participatory approach in order to involve local residents in the development process. Haphazard exploitation runs counter to the project's goal of using the tree as a sustainable economic resource, he said, and in addition to fencing off the planted region, the project focuses on sensitising residents of the Taksibt area in BelfaĆ  to the need to preserve the tree.

The 24-month project provides residents with technical training on preparing and planting the argan tree and the management of natural resources.

Bendaoud said the planting process has been 92% successful and that for the first time inhabitants are planting argan trees on their private property in an effort to reap the added value the tree's oil can provide.

The project is a collaborative effort between local agencies and the Network of Argan Biosphere Reserve Associations (RARBA), the Agency for Social Development in Morocco, the European Union and the German Technical Assistance Agency (GTZ).

As the species is now found almost exclusively in the Sousse region and continues to disappear quickly, UNESCO classified the tree in 1999 as a world heritage, warranting care and attention. The organisation helped create a reserve for the tree through the activities of local civil society. Since then a number of programmes have been implemented with the aim of involving local residents in protecting the tree and offering support for the responsible extraction of argan oil.

Looking forward, argan enthusiasts hope to create a map of tree locations to encourage travel agencies and professionals to bring tour groups to the region to explore the mountains and learn about the conduct, traditions and customs connected to the tree. This type of ecotourism, in combination with argan oil's growing popularity abroad, may be the key to preserving the species.


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