hey call it the giver of life in southwestern Morocco, the only place where it grows. Little known elsewhere - even in the rest of the North African country - the argan tree survives heat, drought and poor soils to fight desertification and provide valuable products and employment for the local Berber people.

The only tree of its kind anywhere in the world, the argan grows in forests between the coastal towns of Agadir and Essaouira. Gnarled and thorny, it sends its roots deep into the ground in search of water, binding the soil and preventing erosion.

Its green fruits - which look like oversized round olives - smell sweet but taste horrible. But they contain a real treasure, an extremely hard nut with small oil-rich seeds.

The oil is very nutritious, and - even more important - rich in essential fatty acids and antioxidants. It is believed to lower cholesterol levels, stimulate circulation and boost the immune system - and has also traditionally been used as a treatment for skin diseases. Long used locally for dipping bread and as a salad dressing, it is now becoming a fashionable food in Europe and North America. The cosmetics industry is also becoming increasingly interested in it.

 

Goats sometimes help to harvest the seeds. Kept out of the forests until the fruit is ripe, they brave the thorns and climb the trees, eating the fruits' unpalatable flesh. The discarded nuts are then cracked by hand between two stones - a laborious process - to get out the oil.

The nutshells are burned as a fuel. And the argan's wood - known as 'Moroccan ironwood' - is prized, and used in inlaid boxes. Nothing is wasted.

Women's cooperatives have begun harvesting the oil for export, providing much-needed jobs. But the life-giving tree is under threat. In less than a century, more than a third of the forest has been destroyed for farming, pastureland or making charcoal.

 
 
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