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2/1/2011
In Morocco, a life-giving tree
In Morocco, a life-giving tree

In the semi-desert of southwest Morocco, where the hot sun beats down on the brown earth and rain rarely falls, the crack, crack, crack of splintering nutshells echoes through the valley. Here in the Arganeraie region, a broad basin in the shadow of the High Atlas Mountains, Berber women obtain argan oil using the same method they’ve used for centuries. They gather the dried argan fruits from the ground and use two stones to break open the hard nutshells. The seeds inside are stone ground to produce an oily paste, which is then cold-pressed and filtered to yield what is often called the “liquid gold” of Morocco.

The rest of the world is now catching on to what the wise women of Morocco have known for centuries: argan oil, from the argania spinosa tree, boasts remarkable nutritional and cosmetic benefits. Long used by indigenous Berber women in beauty recipes for healthy hair, skin and nails, argan oil contains more than 80 percent unsaturated fatty acids and has more antioxidants than olive oil. Research shows that it can help regenerate damaged skin, treat acne, moisturize deeply and soothe inflammation.

More Than Skin Deep

But argan oil isn’t only prized for its beauty benefits. It’s also an important source of income for Moroccans in this rural region. Weleda recently formed a partnership with Sidi Yassine, a locally owned, family-run business, to source organic argan oil for use in its new Pomegranate Firming Day Cream, Night Cream and Eye Cream. The partnership allows Weleda to obtain pure, wild-harvested argan oil and to track the source of the seeds and the quality of oil to ensure its standards are met at every stage of the production process.

Like all of Weleda’s ingredient-sourcing initiatives over its 90-year history, the partnership with Sidi Yassine focuses on the long-term sustainability of the project from an environmental, economic and social perspective. The collaboration ensures a steady income and fair wage for the more than 500 harvesters, almost all women, who work for Sidi Yassine and are paid a guaranteed wage according to the number of argan nuts they process. Argan—this gift from nature—enables them to earn a livelihood; without it, they would have few other economic opportunities. It’s fitting, then, that the locals call argania spinosa the “Tree of Life.

Sustaining Life

The squat, gnarly argan tree is the symbol of Morocco. With deep, broad roots that draw water from far-reaching depths, the tree is well adapted to the harsh, dry climate. It grows wild, can survive temperatures of more than 120°F and can be traced back more than 2 million years. Some of the stock in the Arganeraie region are estimated to be 300 years old.

Sadly, though, the number of argan trees has dwindled over the years, and it’s become endangered. Countless efforts to cultivate argania spinosa in other regions have failed. If the argan forests were to disappear, life in the region would likely be unsustainable. The local Berber people use not only the fruits to make oil but also the wood for building materials, charcoal and firewood.

The argan groves also sustain a complex ecosystem that would disappear along with them. Crops, herbs and medicinal plants like barley, lavender and thyme would scorch in the hot sun without the shade of the trees to protect them. Honeybees and animals that depend on native grasses would also perish. What’s more, because of their deep roots, the argan trees prevent soil erosion and allow for the replenishment of aquifers, which all serve as a buffer against the ever-encroaching Sahara Desert.

Fortunately, efforts are being made to conserve the argan groves and safeguard the incomes of the Berber families. In 1998, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) stepped in, designating almost 10,000 square miles of argan forests in southwest Morocco a UNESCO biosphere reserve, helping ensure continual reforestation and production of treasured argan oil.

The protected area helps foster a balanced, harmonious relationship between the local Moroccans and nature. As the sun sets on the stony ground and the argan trees cast long shadows, the sound of cracking nuts has stopped—but only for the time being. Thanks to sustainable efforts from Sidi Yassine, continuing demand for organic, high-quality argan oil from Weleda, and UNESCO’s vital conservation programs, the work will begin again tomorrow. Just as it has for centuries. cr