Climbing goats threaten oil-rich trees

UC DAVIS (US) — Global demand for argan oil may be a two-edged sword—providing economic and social benefits for Morocco’s rural communities at the same time it threatens the health and future of native forests.

Derived from the seeds of the deciduous argan tree fruit, argan oil has been an important resource for Morocco’s Berber people for centuries. The oil is now highly sought for culinary, cosmetic, and medicinal purposes globally, selling for roughly $300 per liter. (One liter equals slightly more than one-fourth gallon.)

“Our research indicates that while the argan oil boom seems to have benefited locals and improved educational opportunities, especially for girls, it has not improved the forests and may actually have led to their degradation,” says Travis Lybbert, associate professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis.

Goats have a taste for the deciduous argan tree fruit that produces an oil currently marketed for about $300 per liter for its culinary, cosmetic, and medicinal purposes. (Credit: Abedellah Aboudrare)

Lybbert and colleagues have seen that among households in the argan-growing region, those with access to argan fruit benefited economically and were more likely to send their daughters to secondary school. The researchers saw similar benefits of the argan trade across villages and communes or collections of villages.

But the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also points to negative effects.

As households benefit economically, they often purchase more goats. Goats are the primary threat to the argan forests because they climb the trees to graze their leaves. Households also appear to be resorting to more aggressive fruit harvesting techniques, which can damage branches and dislodge buds for the next year’s production.

Adding to their analysis, the researchers used satellite imagery from 1981 to 2009 to assess the impact of the argan oil boom, finding evidence that rapid appreciation of argan oil prices had not helped the argan forests and may even have sped their degradation.

Policies and programs that aim for “win-win” benefits to both local households and local biodiversity must be based on empirical evidence informed by the complex interactions between people and nature, which are often shaped by social norms, institutions, and markets, the researchers say.

Abdellah Aboudrare from the École Nationale d’Agriculture in Morocco, contributed to the study, along with researchers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International Food Policy Research Institute.

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