Conservation in a Nutshell

March 3, 2009

For the people of southwestern Morocco, the argan tree (Argania spinosa) is more than a provider of shade -- though with an average height of 22 to 30 feet, it certainly casts a shadow. Within the fruit that hangs from the tree's gnarled branches is a nut containing a valuable and rare oil prized for cosmetic, culinary and medicinal uses.

The argan is one nut that is literally hard to crack, requiring steady pounding, usually done by hand. It can take approximately 20 hours of work to produce just one liter of its golden elixir. The work of harvesting the fruit and processing and selling the oil is largely carried out by women's cooperatives. "The argan tree is an important part of our way of life," says Agrad Fatima, a member of a cooperative in Morocco's Agadir region. "We sell the oil but also use it ourselves, and the leftover shells are burned for fuel."

Like the members of the argan cooperatives, those Moroccans who make their living from cork harvesting also rely on forests for their economic survival. The production of cork -- a renewable resource that can be harvested without damaging the tree and is sold to plug wine bottles -- creates jobs such as debarkers, cutters, stackers and water suppliers. Maintaining these traditional jobs is especially important in Morocco's rural communities, home to some of its most impoverished citizens.

Goats Eating Argan Nuts in a Tree

The country's forests also provide its people with honey, mushrooms, berries, medicinal plants and fuel wood, often the only heating method available to the rural poor. Though Morocco's natural resources are considerable, they are not infinite, and the combination of illicit logging, livestock overgrazing, forest fires and the over-collection of fuel wood is rapidly destroying precious landscapes. To help conserve them while still providing the country's rural communities with a way to earn a living, the Rainforest Alliance has been laying the groundwork for the certification of cork and argan oil.

In cooperation with local and regional partners including the World Wildlife Fund Mediterranean Programme and Moroccan government agencies, the Rainforest Alliance is developing certification standards for environmentally and socially sound cork and argan oil production, working within the framework of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) criteria for responsible forest management. To date, we have carried out test certifications on approximately 11,120 acres (4,500 hectares) of argan lands and cork oak forests; the training of local auditors is slated to begin in February 2009.

Morocco's people are not the only beneficiaries of this work. Throughout the Mediterranean region, forest mosaics of cork and holm oaks, cedars, pines and olive trees are home to about 25,000 species of flowering plants and many different types of birds and mammals. When cork trees are cut down, the land often turns into desert, destroying the habitat of countless species. "FSC certification will be a major step forward," says Mateo Cariño, forestry coordinator for the Rainforest Alliance in Western Europe and Africa. "The sale of certified argan oil and cork will help support local communities and this, in turn, will ensure that they keep conserving endangered ecosystems."