The Ethics of Argan Oil

by Hind Berji

When most people think of Argan oil, they imagine advertisements showing (usually) “exotic” women with lustrous hair holding rustic-looking bottles of what cosmetic companies call “liquid gold,” but do we understand the ethical and environmental implications of cultivating Argan oil? Due to deforestation, overuse, and the commercial interests of the famous nut, it is estimated that the Argan tree will nearly disappear by the year 2051.

To understand how Argan oil has become such a sought-after ingredient for cosmetic companies, it is necessary to learn about the history of its use. The Argan tree is dated far back into antiquity, and while it once covered the entire Maghreb region of North Africa, it is now exclusively endemic to the Sousse valley of southwestern Morocco.

It has been a vital part of Moroccan life for centuries, especially for the indigenous Amazigh—or Berber—communities as a nutritional, medicinal, and economic necessity. Blended with roasted almond and honey, Argan oil makes the vitamin-enriched Amlou paste that Moroccans dip bread in and is used in virtually all Moroccan dishes. You will seldom find a household in Morocco that does not have the oil stored in a pantry or medicine cabinet.

Argan’s dermatological fame stems from its use for scars, acne, and even as cough medicine for young children. The tree’s deep-rooted system protects the land from degradation, soil erosion, and heat, while providing husks for livestock in rural areas. It is no wonder that Moroccans have named Argania Spinosa the Moroccan “tree of life.” However, the Argan tree’s importance to Moroccans has not been enough to incite proper preservation efforts on both a local and global scale. In the past two decades, deforestation rates rose dramatically in Morocco due partly to the extension of grazed land and the collection of firewood. Though projects like the Tamounte conservation project have taken the initiative to plant seeds and encourage the development of the tree as an economic resource, the results are often stilted by exploitation.

In 1999, the United Nations educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the Argan forest a world biosphere. According to UNESCO, nearly 3 million of the biosphere’s population is Berber. UNESCO’s goal is to counteract the exploitative practices that the Argan tree has fallen victim to, while encouraging the economic development within the region—particularly for Berber women. The Tashelhit women who extract the oil are members of co-operatives that help the women build a steady income and a social status.

As the demand for Argan grew, manufacturing became mechanized, leading to the creation of private oil presses from major European entrepreneurs. For them, paying Berber women to extract the oil by hand was not necessary. Costs of production were lowered; volumes of the oil increased, and the Argan craze spread like wildfire. Unfortunately, the intermediaries that work with these women still keep most of the profits from their hard work. This is particularly vexing because the image of Berber women is still used to help sell the product worldwide. It has even found its way into pop culture. In a recent article by The Daily Mail, the British tabloid newspaper asks its readers “is Kim Kardashian helping to change Berber women’s lives?”

These kinds of celebrity endorsements certainly elevate the demand for Argan, but these kinds of careless statements only build to the global overuse of the oil. Rather than praising celebrities or individuals for helping indigenous North African women, let us  make sure these women are getting their fair share of the deal. Let us work harder to maintain the endangered “tree of life,” because we simply cannot afford to lose it.

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