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Oil rush threatens Berber way of life

By Sylvia Smith for CNN

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Argan oil is made from the fruit of a Moroccan tree.

(CNN) -- The game of gourmet one-upmanship where a dinner party host strives to serve a rare delicacy that none of the guests have ever heard of, let alone tasted before, thrives on the import of new exotic products.

The latest in that line of ethnic specialities that capture the imagination, tickle the palette and clean the arteries is Argan oil, made from the fruit of a Moroccan tree.

More a shrub than a tree "l'arganier" produces a multi-purpose oil that satisfies our health obsession with its anti inflammatory powers and mega vitamin E content.

Top chefs swoon over its nutty flavor and eight essential fatty acids, and it alleviates our sense of guilt by bringing employment to poor Berber women.

The Argan tree, its nut and the oil that is finally extracted is part of Berber heritage.

Extensive forests grow in the High Atlas and Anti-Atlas mountains in the south-west of the country. Within a 160 kilometer radius of the Souss valley about 21 million trees produce the world's supply of argan nuts -- and oil.

Both the men and women of the hundreds of local villages appreciate the unique and versatile tree. The men graze their small herds of goats on the common land where the majority of the trees grow. They have the right to free pasture for their animals and when the summer is especially hot and all other vegetation has dried up, the goats climb into the branches to eat the Argan nut and remaining leaves.

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Top chefs swoon over its nutty flavor and eight essential fatty acids.

From a distance they look like curious, dark fruits dangling from the short stubby tree with its twisted and gnarled trunk. And just as the goats cling to the branches of the tree so these thorny shrub-like trees cling tenaciously to the poor soil on the slopes of rocky hills. Yet curiously all attempts to propagate saplings in laboratories from cuttings and seeds have failed.

Which leads us to the problem of the potential over-exploitation of the tree. The Berbers know that the tree is central to their survival. They have the skills to live off the tree, yet to protect it for future generations. Now there's concern that increasing interest by the outside world might threaten the very survival of the argan tree.

The threat stems from attempts to mass-produce its oil. The women traditionally hand press the inner kernel or seeds between two huge stones to produce a heavy, amber colored oil. It's a slow and painstaking process with a hundred kilograms of seeds yielding just one kilogram of the oil.

Using the precious oil is second nature to the Berber women as a substitute for expensive olive oil and other fats (it is excellent for salads and cooking tagine), as lamp fuel and in their home-made cosmetics and soap.

In the past there was no competition for the oil -- it was widely viewed as poor peasants' fare.

Now big business interests have realized they have a new "miracle" ingredient for their anti-age creams. And the food industry is keen to cash in on an up-market rival to white truffle oil.

Berbers have reported sightings of gangs of foreigners collecting the nuts in an underhand way deep in the forests. "They come at night," Ahmed, a shepherd told me. "They arrive in lorries, get the nuts by shaking the trees, or even breaking off whole branches and take the whole lot back to Europe to get the oil mechanically."

The Berbers are increasingly alarmed by this European invasion of their way of life. One woman who works in a women's collective outside the coastal town of Essaouira where the Argan kernels are crushed, claims that the tree has a significance that outsiders can't appreciate.

"You have to understand its ways and treat it with respect," she claims. "If you break of its branches, the tree dies and will never be replaced."

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The Berbers are increasingly alarmed by this European invasion of their way of life.

The Moroccan government has heeded the danger that this wholesale rape of the forests presents and are passing legislation to protect this vital part of local culture.

And while the Berbers of the area have always claimed that Argan oil has various medicinal properties, the local regional government of Al Haouz has ordered scientific studies.

These verify what the Berbers have always known -- that Argan oil is good for you. It consists of 80 per cent unsaturated fatty acids, oleic and linoleic fat. It is exceptionally rich in vitamin E and has properties which lower the cholesterol levels, stimulates circulation of the blood, facilities digestion and strengthens the body's natural defenses.

Conservation and environmental groups are urging that Argan products should only be commercialized slowly so as not to disturb the vital eco-system. They point out that as well as providing oil, the wood of the argan, amazingly indestructible by insects, has been used for centuries in carpentry, charcoal and construction.

If the trees were to disappear then the whole way of life of the region would be lost too. For it's not just the fruit that sustains the Berbers and their animals. The outer shell of the hard fruit is used to make fires and the sticky paste that remains once the kernel is crushed is fed to cows and camels. And so a whole way of life hangs in the balance.

Photos courtesy of Richard Duebel

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