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The Argan tree (Argania spinosa) belongs to the Sapotaceae family. Resistant to drought and heat, the Argan thrives in southwest Morocco where it is the country's second most common tree. The Argan forest contains 20 million trees in an area of 800,000 hectares. UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere program lists the Argan forest region as a biosphere reserve.
The Argan tree reaches a mature height of 8 to 10 m (24 to 30 feet). This thorny evergreen grows in poor, relatively alkaline calcareous soils. This oleaginous or oil-producing tree bears green fruit with a fleshy exterior. The fruit's nut contains an extraordinarily hard shell that sometimes breaks machinery during the extraction process. Within the shell are one to three kernels with an oil content over 50 percent. The Argan tree has a lifespan of 150 to 200 years.
Variety of Uses
The Argan tree, sometimes known as the tree of life or the ironwood tree, is an important part of the livelihood of the Berber culture in the Agadir region. In the Berbers’ traditional agricultural system, the Argan is vital to the local economy and supports 3 million people, according to the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
Argan wood provides fuel, timber and material for tool handles, utensils and woodcarvings. Goats forage leaves and fruit by climbing the gnarled tree trunks. Nut shells are burned for cooking. The valuable oil provides a type of salad dressing for the Berbers or for diners in European restaurants. The oil’s nutritional value includes 80 percent polyunsaturated fatty acids, of which 30 percent is an essential fatty acid. A paste known as amlou or amlu derived from the kernels provides a nutty flavored bread dip served at breakfast. The oil is also used for lighting, soap, hair oil and cosmetics.
Argon Oil Industry
Once the extremely hard nut is cracked, the kernels are roasted. Grinding and mixing with rinse water allows the oil to separate and float. In this laborious process, 100 kg of seed yields 1 to 2 kg of oil.
According to the University of Arizona, extracting oil has daunting statistics: 20 million working days per year in Morocco. As a cottage industry that involves women’s cooperatives, the oil extraction process has benefited Berber women’s socioeconomic status. In 2001, the Amal Cooperative of Tamanar was honored with the International Slow Food Award for Biodiversity.
In arid and semi-arid regions where temperatures can exceed 50 Celsius (120 Fahrenheit) and precipitation is less than 200 mm annually, the Argan has a vital role in maintaining biodiversity and ecological balance. The tree shades pasture grasses from severe evaporation. The strong root system aids in water infiltration and prevents soil erosion. The greenbelt of the Argan forest helps stem desert encroachment.
Problems Facing the Argan Tree
Stress on the habitat of the Argan trees stems from many factors:
The Argan forest has a regression rate of about 600 hectares annually.