In Morocco’s hills, tourist dollars could keep argan oil flowing

Sunday 27/11/2016
Nuts of the Argan tree are collected in a basket at a Moroccan women’s cooperative. (AFP)

Ait Hssaine - In the arid and stony red-earth hills in south-western Morocco, flanked by the Sahara Desert and the snowy Atlas Moun­tains, finding a way to make money is not easy. Water is scarce, rainfall increasingly unpredictable and not much but goats survive on the sparse vegetation.
But the 150 members of the Afoul­ki women’s cooperative are pound­ing away at the problem — literally.
In a back room at the hillside co­operative’s centre in Ait Hssaine, a dozen scarf-clad Berber women rhythmically bring stone hammers down on argan nuts, expertly split­ting the shells and flicking the oil-bearing kernels into a woven basket.
The rich argan oil, once pressed and refined, is tasty and popular on international markets as an addi­tive to cosmetics, soaps, shampoos and other products. Virtually all the world’s supply of argan oil comes from this area of Morocco, inland from the coastal city of Agadir.
“There’s nothing else like argan here. It’s the main thing,” said Rquia Elhjam, one of the women crack­ing nuts to produce the oil. She and other women call it their “wallet” — the source of much or all of their income.
Half of the 2.5 million ar­gan forest in the region has been lost over the last century, cut for firewood or charcoal making, eaten by goats or removed to make way for expanding families, said Moha Haddouch, a former Agriculture Ministry official now working with the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
Fewer trees means less reliable rainfall in the area and fewer oppor­tunities for women and their fami­lies. So, in an effort to protect the remaining forest, plant more trees and boost incomes, UNDP and com­munity members are working to es­tablish a “payment for ecosystem services” scheme.
Under the plan, foreign tourists who flock to Agadir’s sandy beaches and travel into the UNESCO-recog­nised argan reserve to buy oil and local honey, eat Berber food and enjoy the spectacular scenery will be asked to offset the carbon emis­sions generated by their travel with a donation. Tourism businesses may also contribute.
About $10 per visitor — about the cost of offsetting round-trip air travel from Europe, UNDP officials said — could pay for argan tree seed­lings and water to irrigate them or support traditional beekeeping in the hills and the pollination bees provide.
The aim is to ensure that peo­ple who work to protect nature get some pay-off from their labour and that those who benefit from the ser­vices nature provides — including a landscape attractive to tourists — contribute to the cost of maintain­ing them.
“If it weren’t for the local popula­tion, the forest would be long gone,” said Fatima Ait Moussa, president of the women’s argan cooperative.
Cash from tourism payments would give added incentives to pro­tect trees and top up the relatively low prices women get for their oil, which sells locally for $25 a litre, compared to $200 a litre in Paris, Haddouch said.
Hicham Kdir, president of the lo­cal tourism association, said busi­ness owners are beginning to un­derstand that if they do not help protect the environment and the communities their clients come to see, they stand to lose out.
His association, and the beach guest house he runs with his Aus­tralian-born wife Renee O’Sullivan, started a campaign this year to clean up their sometimes trash-strewn Tamraght beach.
After successful volunteer clean-up days on the beach and in the neighbouring scenic Paradise Val­ley, 20 local tourism businesses in October donated money to pay two full-time beach trash collectors and install waste bins.
The success of the campaign Keep it Clean, Keep it Zouine – zouine means “beautiful” in the local Darija Arabic dialect — suggests that “when businesses see the results and the value, they are excited to do more”, Kdir said.
“We understand we need to help protect” the region, he said. “I think people are going to pay.”
To help everyone understand the sometimes complex effort, UNDP has also taken locals, tourism lead­ers and government officials to Cos­ta Rica to see working “payment for ecosystem services” programmes that tap tourist dollars for biodiver­sity protection and community sup­port.
“Now all these people are really strong advocates for the project. They are like ambassadors,” said Mohamed Fouad Bergigui, a pro­gramme analyst with UNDP Mo­rocco.
UNDP, channelling money from the Global Environment Facility, is funding the start-up of the Mo­roccan project. It is equipping the women’s argan cooperative with processing machines to boost the quantity and quality of their oil, working with local beekeepers and providing argan seedlings and water deliveries to farmers in the area.
Just as important, UNDP is cal­culating what level of income from tourism would be needed to keep the project going privately and helping conduct the negotiations to get a deal in place, probably in 2017, Bergigui said.
Plenty of questions remain. Those include whether tourists will stump up cash, whether that money will make its way to communities, whether it will be sufficient to keep local people interested and whether the level of “ecosystem services” they provide can be measured in a meaningful way.
“On some fronts we will fail, that is for sure,” Bergigui said.
The effort, however, is likely to have benefits beyond those aimed directly at the participants. Hit by lessening rainfall and drying reser­voirs, the regional government, for instance, is building a desalination plant to produce irrigation water for farmers.
Enlarging the argan forest to pro­tect rainfall, a form of “soft” adapta­tion to changing climate conditions, can be much less costly and more sustainable, Bergigui said.
Improving opportunities to earn money in poor rural areas may also be able to stem the growing and unsustainable flood of migration to Morocco’s cities by young people looking for a better life, he said.
“These payment-for-ecosystem-services schemes can revolutionise the way of doing business in the countryside,” he said. “Everyone is a winner here, including nature.” Elhjam, deftly pounding argan nuts for $5 a day, agreed. “Even without more money, we need to protect the environment,” she said. “If we get more money too, that’s good.”
The Thomson Reuters Foundation.