Precious Oil, Argan Trees and the Tree Climbing Goats of Morocco

goats in Argan trees - On the road to EssaouiraWe were in an herbal shop in Fez, Morocco sipping sweet mint tea while the owner opened up jar after jar of medicaments and shook bags filled with loose herbs.  We sniffed and listened while he expounded upon the healing properties or cooking wonders that each provided and then he gestured us towards a corner where a couple of women sat roasting and cracking nuts with rocks.  To our shame we paid these hard-working women scant attention because we’d totally focused upon the poster behind them of a tree.  And not just any tree but one filled with goats, happily standing on the branches like oversized Christmas ornaments.  Cooperative-Argan oil & spicesA few days and questions later, after a bit of online research and some money that crossed our driver’s palm, we were on our way to the area near Essaouira, about a two and a half-hour drive east from Marrakesh.  Besides being a name rich in vowels, the coastal city of Essaouira is a popular vacation area for European beachgoers and surfers with a rich history dating back to the Carthaginians and Berbers.  Surprisingly though, that was of little interest to us as we were on a mission that had to do with the argan trees and the tree climbing goats in the Sous Valley.  And this day trip would take us to the only place in the world where these trees are to be found, the reason why the southwestern region of Morocco became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1998.

Our drive led us through several, micro eco-systems, both artificial and manmade.  Leaving Marrakesh behind, we encountered crop lands of varying sizes. The majority were small family plots while others appeared to be mid-size fields of wealthier land-holders as well as some walled and guarded properties of seriously, major players or corporations. The signs of irrigation and intensive fertilization were abundant. Concrete aqueducts, modern spreaders and workers bent over hand weeding were only the most obvious. The vibrant greens of the abundant and healthy vegetable crops were the ultimate give away.On the road to Essaouira

In short order this lush, verdant land gave way to what could have been called The Big Dry, where piles of rocks appeared to be the most abundant harvest. Our guide, Daoud, explained that Morocco was in the midst of a multi-year drought. There had been only two or three days of rain in the new year; totally insufficient to replenish the land. The effects of the previous years’ calamities stood in stark relief before us. Homes appeared to be abandoned in piecemeal fashion on both sides of the road. Crops were stunted or dead in the fields. Whole stretches of land were tilled but left unplanted. This was not land lying fallow; it was land farmers would not waste the seed upon, in plots destined to be barren because of the lack of moisture, a harbinger of want, hardship and destitution.

Then, climbing slightly in elevation, we crossed a ridge and descended into another landscape, the only place on earth where the fabled argan trees exist, the Sous Valley. Here in this hard-scrabble dirt grow the trees which for centuries have nourished the local Berber people who inhabit this land.On the road to Essaouira

The argan tree (argania spinosa) grows up to 30 feet in height and lives up to 200 years. It is well adapted to its harsh environment with its widespread root system that allows it to retain moisture and withstand the temperature extremes providing an important defense against erosion and the encroachment of the Sahara Desert, to the immediate south. In a land where not much else grows, the argan tree with its thorny branches and twisted trunks has been used for centuries by the Berber as building material, fuel and food.  And in a splendid example of environmental adaptation, the hungry goats learned to climb the trees to eat the walnut-size, yellow-green fruit.goats in argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

 

goat in Argan tree - On the road to EssaouiraHistory does not record such prosaic events as to who went through the goat droppings and discovered the prize after the fruit passed through the goat’s digestive system.  Who wants to think about such things anyway?  (Okay, we confess, we do and we had several entertaining scenarios envisioned!)  The goats obviously provide the easiest and most efficient way to extract the highly valued kernel but workers can also dry the argan fruit and then remove the pulp or remove the flesh mechanically.

The tan colored nut that remains though, contains one to three oil rich argan seeds and when processed this is the reward which has sustained the Sous Valley Berber for generations. One of the rarest oils in the world, high in vitamin A, vitamin E and essential fatty acids, the extracted oil can be used either as food for humans (the nuts are roasted first to enhance the flavor) or as a medication to heal acne, psoriasis, eczema and inhibit scar tissue formation. It is also becoming increasingly well-known for its cosmetic and anti-aging properties.

goats and argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

 

goat in the argan tree field - On the road to EssaouiraAfter watching the fabled tree-climbing goats and exchanging smiles with a goat tender who brought one of the long-haired creatures over to us to pet, we stopped by a small building on the side of the road, the La Cooperative Feminine Argan Majji, to learn how the oil is processed. nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's Cooperative

Following the removal of the fleshy pulp (by goat or other method) the women begin the labor intensive process to extract the oil. To get to the kernels, they crack the nut open the time-honored way, between two stones, with the leftover shells being gathered for later use as fuel for fires. This tedious work requires stamina, dexterity and finger protection for rocks are hard and fingers ain’t.  Argan nuts rank among the hardest nut in the world and this first stage of breaking them open is the most difficult part of the process. So far a machine hasn’t been developed that splits the nuts reliably and the traditional method, combined with the womens’ skills, remains the most effective way to get to the kernels. Once the kernels are extracted they can be crushed and pounded into a paste or fed into machines that pulverize, press and extract the valuable argan oil. The remains come out in long thin ropes of gray pulp that are fed back to the goats (an elegant cycle) for their second enjoyment of the argan fruit.cracking nuts-nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's Cooperative

 

processing nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's CooperativeMuch of the argan oil produced today comes from over fifty women’s argan oil cooperatives like La Cooperative Feminine Argan Majji that were first formed in the late 1990’s and operate under union protection. The work provides income which many of the women have used to educate themselves and their children, provide healthcare for their families and also gives them economic freedom in Morocco’s traditional society.  And, although the men’s part might be overshadowed by the success of the women’s co-ops, their role is equally important in tending the goats and argan trees, many of which are individually owned.  After all, goats are intelligent animals, but also greedy and rapacious creatures by nature, and need a goat herder to dissuade them from feasting upon other’s trees.

And when we left the Majji Co-operative to visit the coast before returning to Marrakesh we’d exchanged some Moroccan Durhams for a small bottle of oil, soaps and lotions.  We had a new-found appreciation of the argan trees, their valued oil and happy memories of seeing the tree-climbing goats of Morocco’s Sous Valley.

goat in the argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

By Richard Nash and Anita Oliver

 

 

 

66 comments

  • Enjoyed hopping on this side and that side of your wonderful photos and perceptive comments. I’ve had my heart and soul twisted inside out so many times in Morocco from the early 1970s–now it is only…Yellow Dreams. :-).

    Liked by 1 person

    • We can understand why Morocco has a grip on your heart – it’s a country that’s very foreign to us and therein lies its appeal. So many novel experiences, sensations, sights and sounds that we were constantly wondering what was next! We’d love to go back again (and fortunately it’s fairly close to where we’re living now) and learn more about the people and the country. And, oh … the food, too! : )

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  • Such an informative post! Thanks for sharing👍

    Liked by 1 person

  • Argan oil is amazing! My favorite breakfast is to dip piece of bread into the Argan oil so yummy and so healthy. Have you also try honey from the Argan trees. So tasty!

    I think what is so interesting about these trees that they don’t grow anywhere else. You find Argan trees only on the Western part of Morocco close to the coast. I heard stories that Israel try to plan them too, thinking that the conditions are similar, but they never grew there! A real Moroccan gold!

    Liked by 1 person

    • We tried a piece of fresh baked bread dipped in the oil and you’re right, it was very tasty. I’d love to try the honey and, if we’re lucky enough to return to this area, that will be on our list. The Argan trees are a unique treasure of Morocco and I love your phrase, “Moroccan gold!” Thanks for stopping by our blog and commenting 🙂 .

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  • Seeing this tree-climbing goats has been on my bucket list for a while–since I wrote this blog post with a video depicting them, http://caughtontheweb.blogspot.com/2013/05/goats-in-trees.html . What an interesting story you unearthed to go with them.

    Liked by 1 person

  • I too discovered Aegean oulon our trip to Morocco. Did you really skip Essaouira? Most beautiful city in Morocco. We were there recently and ten years before that.. It had not changed much- apparently due to the fact that the water is too shallow near the harbor area and therefore big ships can’t make the stop there. Thankfully!!!
    I hope you get there next time. It’s a very special place in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It wasn’t until we visited Morocco that we realized that Aegean oil and argan oil referred to the same product but we’re glad we learned about it as it really is a nice moisturizer. And, in fact we did make it to Essaouira for lunch and a quick tour around the town. You’re right – it really is beautiful and we loved seeing the 16th century fortress, Castelo Real de Mogador and the bay. Hopefully next time we visit Morocco we’ll be able to spend more time there, especially with your high recommendation!

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  • What a fascinating day out! I wasn’t aware of all the properties of argan oil but I’ll have to look out for it now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Like most of our travels which kind of evolve as we go along, we had a very loose itinerary when we went to Morocco. And when we ran into the poster of the tree climbing goats in Fez we made it a priority to figure out how to see these creatures for ourselves. So fun to be able to grab opportunities as they present themselves!

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  • Absolutely fascinating. And tree climbing goats. I would have loved to watch their antics. Great pics of the scenery, and your words introduced me to a place and a craft that I know nothing about.

    Liked by 1 person

  • I’ve never even heard of argan oil till now, but I enjoyed reading this post! It’s fascinating that cracking the nuts is still done by hand and that they still haven’t developed a way to automate the process.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good to know we’re not alone in our ignorance of the argan oil, Rachel! 🙂 There have been some mechanical “nut-crackers” developed but I think some of the problem is that, even though the process of hand cracking is slower it employs many women and can be done with little waste and efficiently since the nuts vary in their contents from 1-3 seeds. It’s really interesting to visit a country like Morocco and see how many things are still done in the traditional ways because of the cheap supply of labor despite the fact that there are machines to do these tasks.

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  • Gosh, no wonder argan oil is so expensive! I had no idea about the process. How fascinating to learn! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Travel has so many lessons to teach us from geography and history to cultures and religions and, in your case Betsy, severe weather! And then there are some of the animals that we’ve been fortunate to see from the fabulous wildlife of the Galapagos Islands, a green turtle laying her eggs in Costa Rica and now the tree climbing goats. Amazing!

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  • I look for these goats in trees every trip to Essaouria and Agadir and am thrilled when I see them. Very informative piece!

    Liked by 1 person

  • Just started using Argan oil recently and love it, so this was very cool to learn about where it comes from. Had no idea!

    Liked by 1 person

  • When I was in Morocco I enjoyed learning about the production of the argan oil and hearing about the cooperatives, but truly, I loved seeing the goats in trees and like you, was lucky enough to get a photo!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The cooperatives play a very important role in many or Morocco’s womens’ economic empowerment and like you, we really found the production of the oil, soap, medicinal and food products very interesting. It was also fun to meet and talk to some of the women, a few of whom spoke fairly good English. But we have to agree with you … those goats are show stealers! 😀

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  • This is fascinating! It’s just the kind of thing we like to find out about – like making rice noodles, or extracting peanut oil with an ox powered grinder, or how to collect the sap and make palm sugar, all of which we did in SE Asia. I love stuff like this – I think it appeals to my overall awe at human ingenuity. In Bali we tasted civet coffee made from the coffee beans pooped out by civet cats. Now I wanna go to Morocco and see the goats! Morocco’s on our list anyway.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ooh, sadly the civet coffee requires incredible cruelty to civet cats. Heartbreaking. If it were more well known hopefully more people would boycott this product and hopefully end the cruelty.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I had no idea about the cruelty to the civet cats! I will never touch it again (not that I was going to anyway – it struck me a s a bit of a rip off). Off to do a bit of research . . . .

        Liked by 1 person

      • A great discussion about animal poop! Thanks Peta about bringing up the topic of civet cats and civet coffee which prompted some fascinating reading about how the traditional partially digested coffee beans were gathered from the wild civet cats and the protest against the commercialization and inhumane treatment of some of the civet cats by the coffee industry. And it’s so cool to be part of a community that’s participated in so many amazing travel experiences!

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        • You are more than welcome. I am always happy to get the word out so people can take the necessary action. Another good example of this is with regard to elephant riding. Once people find out that it’s cruel and hurts the elephants they will often not participate and support these activities.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I agree with you about the importance of learning the impact tourism and associated activities can have on many communities that depend upon the tourist dollar to fund their economies but must also have a love-hate relationship with those who don’t respect their history and customs. Researching and learning about a place beforehand can really help as well as reading many of the travel blogs available (like yours, Peta) for additional insight.

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    • We had fun learning how to make chocolate when we lived in Nicaragua and I’d love to repeat your experiences, Alison and Don, with making the peanut oil and palm sugar! This is the kind of thing that you just don’t think about when you buy your food pre-packaged from a supermarket in North America. As to the civet cats, I had to do a bit of research following the above discussion as I would also jump at the chance to taste a cup of coffee processed from civet cat poop (I mean, who wouldn’t?!) It looks like a lot of the controversy stems from the way that some of the civet cats are trapped and then caged in inadequate habitat or poorly fed. However, there are also humane ways to raise the civet cats and produce the valuable coffee. It’s interesting to learn about the coffee and also get some education about the civet cats. Great discussion and thanks! (And I’ll be looking out for some of the traditionally pooped coffee from a certified source in the future!)

      Liked by 1 person

      • I must admit that, having the attention span of a flea, I promptly forgot to do any looking around re civet cats so thanks for this tidbit. I tasted civet coffee in Bali alternating mouthfuls with regular coffee. I drink coffee with so much sugar that I couldn’t tell the difference.
        A.

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  • This reminds me of the world’s most expensive coffee made from the droppings of some Indonesian cats 🙂 . This was quite the adventure and must have been really nice to see the climbing goats. Once we were in Hawaii and took a helicopter ride.. I was gobsmacked to see the goats way up high on the mountains..insane. Like you said, the are very adaptable. Argan oil l’ve heard of, but never used. I will be on the lookout for it from now on 🙂 . It’s worth the price knowing what goes into producing it. Thanks for this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Incredible. How many kernels can the women crack daily? It seems like such an arduous task. So, do the goat herders collect the goat droppings daily and pick through it to find the seeds? This is so fascinating. And I love the pictures of the goats in the trees. Who knew?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now those are some good questions D! I can’t imagine sitting and cracking these nuts (and my fingers) for the hours at a time that these women must do daily. And while machines have been developed to do this work, we’re assuming that the old way is much preferred because the nuts contain 1-3 kernels and the machines may waste some of the precious seeds. As to who goes through the droppings … Now there’s a chore where you’d want some good gloves!

      Liked by 1 person

  • I love goats and these captured my heart.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Fabulous, thank you for allowing others to live your grand adventures vicariously!

    Liked by 1 person

  • After countless FB feeds of goats in trees I can quit speculating on PhotoShop-ed photos. A fascinating tale and what a great adventure. Hope you are freelancing some of these adventures for publications!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe, you’ll remember the “jackalope” that was very popular years ago (way before the internet) when we lived in Montana? Tree climbing goats are unique enough that they could be photo-shopped too, so we can definitely understand your initial skepticism, Jackie. And, thanks also for your compliment. While we dream of fame and a bigger audience, freelancing sounds like kind of like work … ! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  • We loved the post and pictures. You certainly found your way to a unique spot and gave an excellent account. What a great example of fulling utilizing natural resources to their fullest. How much longer are you in Morocco? Cheers, Tim & Anne

    Liked by 1 person

  • I am thrilled with this post. I have used argon oil for years and wondered if it was all hype, even though it works. It is in many and varied cosmetics here, and everywhere, ranging from $50-10 per item.. Goats on the tree branches is an unforgettable image. Thanks so much. I am enjoying your journey.
    With love
    Maida

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right about the image of goats in trees as “unforgettable.” As soon as we saw the poster (and found out the goats were for real!) we started figuring out a way to see them. And learning about argan oil was a bonus. We both have been enjoying the soaps and the oil is such a nice touch of luxury too. So glad you’re enjoying our posts Maida and happy to have you with us as a virtual traveler!

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  • Excellent post – great pics! Alas, though I spent several days in Essaouira in my 3 week explore of Morocco, I missed seeing the infamous tree goats. Most fascinating stuff in the many eclectic corners of our Planet!

    Liked by 1 person

  • I love the Argan oil and have been using it on my hair for years, it is a very nourishing oil. The goats are lovely, I had no idea they learned to climb the tree to eat the fruit? Clever goats!

    Liked by 1 person

  • What an amazing adventure guys. We’ll be in Mojacar May 8th. When are you coming to visit?

    Liked by 1 person

  • I would have loved to have been with you and seen the goats in the trees and the processing of the argan oil. Fascinating. I’ve not heard of argan oil. I think it is great that much of the oil comes from women’s cooperatives.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Lovely post, thanks for the share 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  • We have some “goats in trees” photos, too from our day trip to Essaouira! You guys are getting a great experience of Morocco. Wish we’d has more than just a week’s holiday there.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Wonderful post! I’ve heard of and seen photos of the tree climbing goats but didn’t know about the argan oil. How fortunate you were able to see the goats and how fortunate that I follow your blog and was able to share your experience. Let us know how you like the oil!!
    Suzi

    Liked by 1 person

  • Enjoyed reading about the relationship between the goats and the argan seed production. We had no idea! On our trip to Morocco we bought some argan oil and it really is amazingly good stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

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