Farming a warmer planet

Morocco holds lessons for how farmers around the world are adapting to, and curbing, global warming.

Fatima Ait Moussa looks at cosmetics and oil products made from argan nuts at her women’s cooperative .

Fatima Ait Moussa paces in front of 13 women sitting on the floor of a rectangular room in this village in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains. She’s shy, avoiding most eye contact, but Ms. Moussa is an accomplished woman. She commands the room with a familial tone and motherly smile.

“Who is your husband?” she shouts out.

“Argan!” they respond in unison. Moussa, dressed in a flowing black djellaba, repeats her question. One person responds, “Argan is my wallet!”

In reality, argan isn’t literally a husband or a wallet. It’s a tree that happens to play a vital role in sustaining the livelihoods of these entrepreneurial farmers. For the 149 women spread across 20 villages in Moussa’s cooperative, the trees and the oils they provide – used in expensive cosmetics, soaps, and food products – are the primary source of income.

The argan forests of southwestern Morocco produces nearly all of the world’s argan oil, a prized commodity.

Moussa’s actual husband died in the mid-1990s, saddling her with massive debt. Around that time, she witnessed a similarly cash-strapped woman try, unsuccessfully, to convince a grocer to accept argan oil as payment. The encounter sparked the idea for the business venture she now runs.

It’s a success, judging by the women’s enthusiasm and the framed certificates and photographs with leading politicians that decorate her office. Yet the cooperative is also beset by serious challenges, from drought and climate change to deforestation and global competition, that squeeze the women’s $5 daily incomes.

What’s happening here is emblematic of forces that reach far beyond Moussa’s venture in these arid, windswept mountains of southwestern Morocco. Worldwide, 3.4 billion people live in rural areas, often in poverty and with lifestyles that expose them disproportionately to the effects of changes in Earth’s warming climate. From Afghanistan to Bolivia, as well as in large swaths of Africa, many of them cultivate land that’s dry or growing drier.

The challenge for farm communities is to adapt and respond before climate change starts to erode agricultural productivity. For governments and development groups, the challenge is broader: They are recognizing that it’s not just that climate change is affecting farmers, it’s also that farmers are affecting the climate. While plants like argan trees can help store excess carbon that would otherwise add to the world’s emissions, many agricultural practices create greenhouse gases. They, in fact, account for about a quarter of such emissions worldwide.

Tomas Ayuso
Few trees grow in the barren hills of rural Morocco, which has increasingly been affected by the march of desertification.

Half of those agricultural emissions come in the form of methane emitted by livestock, the tilling of soil, and other agricultural practices. The next largest contributor is deforestation, such as for creating land for grazing. Yet some of these emissions – as much as 20 percent – are offset by crops and forests actually filtering carbon dioxide from the air.

“People are now starting to see much more clearly the negative impacts of climate change on agriculture and food production globally and that is driving increased research and action on the ground,” says Marc Sadler, an agricultural expert at the World Bank in Washington.

Primed in part by the United Nations climate accord reached in Paris in 2015, nations are now starting to funnel more aid to help poor nations respond to climate change – including on farms. In recent years, rich countries have pledged to give $100 billion annually in climate aid to poorer nations by 2020. 

But nothing close to that amount has started to flow, and the money being funneled into agriculture still remains modest: A 2014 report by the Climate Policy Initiative, a think tank, found that just 2 percent of the $331 billion in global climate financing as of that date was going toward improving farming practices.

The dearth of funding down on the farm could carry significant consequences for the world. Many countries view better agricultural techniques as not only vital to blunting the effects of global warming, but also as a way to limit overcrowding in cities by giving rural communities more opportunities, preventing desertification, enhancing food security, and preserving native customs.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff
SOURCE: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

The new buzzword to describe greener farming techniques is “climate-smart agriculture.” It was a prominent topic at a November UN climate conference in Marrakech, Morocco. It’s a theme at almost every global food production forum these days.

“Now you’d be hard-pressed to go to an agriculture conference and have climate not come up,” says Elwyn Grainger-Jones, executive director of CGIAR System Organization, an international agriculture and food security group.

Climate-smart agriculture encompasses practices such as reducing water use, planting climate-appropriate crops, diversifying yields, improving soil management, and using natural landscapes to promote “green” infrastructure that stores carbon or manages rainfall.

In Brazil, for instance, it means new legal and policing measures to slow the clearing of forests for cattle production. Mongolia is shifting to growing crops in greenhouses and away from allowing goats and other animals to graze on disappearing grasslands. Vietnam is using new breeds of rice seeds – ones that sprout earlier in germination – to cope with drought.

In Morocco, it means methodically pounding argan nuts. The government has committed to planting drought-tolerant argan trees across 95,000 acres of the country as part of its plan, under the Paris climate agreement, to both combat climate change and help vulnerable rural communities adapt to a warming planet. Doing so would pull about 0.613 megatons of carbon dioxide from the air – roughly the equivalent of taking 130,000 cars off roads – between 2020 and 2030.

Planting fruit and other kinds of trees has been a focus of governments and aid agencies across sub-Sahara Africa because they are more resilient to climate shifts than many traditional crops. They also provide a valuable source of income. 

A woman working near the city of Essaouira crushes argan nuts with a smooth stone.

In Morocco, getting the coveted oil out of the argan nuts is arduous work. The women sitting in the room at Moussa’s cooperative here pull the coffee-colored nuts from their large wicker baskets and smash the husks with smooth, black rocks. Then they pry the oil-bearing kernels loose, tossing them into smaller bags. 

It takes the women half a day to fill the bags. They make about 60 cents an hour for their work in this barren town of terraced homes and scattered argan trees that cling to a dusty hillside. The women are now breadwinners for the indigenous Berber, or Amazigh, community. About 2 million people depend on argan in this coastal region, where nearly all of the world’s supply of the tree is found in forests that look like clumps of broccoli.

“There is nothing like argan here,” says Rkia Elhjam, seated on the floor, who has worked with the cooperative since 2004. “Argan is our main activity.”

•     •     •

If argan exemplifies the promise of climate-smart agriculture, the forests here also reveal the multiple threats many rural communities face. The tree is one of the only things that can grow in this parched area. Yet Moussa says the droughts have become frequent enough that they are depressing even the harvest of nuts. 

Traditional grazing has become more difficult, too. As grasses have receded, goats have ventured farther into the argan forest, causing even more damage. Goats are a pest. They climb the trees with their spindly legs to eat the fruits. Tribal laws encourage villagers to set aside land for the animals. But they have been ignored. 

Conservation hasn’t been much of a priority, either. The argan trees have been cut for decades for use as firewood and to make handicrafts for sale in markets. The forest has lost half its cover in the past century. That’s why UNESCO deemed 10,000 square miles of the area a protected site in 1998. 

“There is nothing easier to grab land from than the forest,” says Mohamed Fouad Bergigui, a Morocco-based analyst for the UN Development Program (UNDP), as he winds through the mountains in his small hatchback.

Farther up the Atlas range, the effects of climate change on the small towns of Morocco are evident as well. The village of Toufghine is so remote that people use homegrown walnuts for currency. Toufghine, in fact, isn’t much of a town at all – it’s a smattering of drab, gray stone houses perched haphazardly along cliffs.

Homes here have no running water. Electricity didn’t arrive until 2014. Mobile phone service started in 2013. The first road to the hospital, where a doctor only visits for half a day on Tuesdays, was completed in 2009. 

Tomas Ayuso
‘FROM MAY, JUNE, JULY, AUGUST, THE RIVER IS GOING DOWN, DOWN, DOWN. THERE IS LESS AND LESS WATER. SO PEOPLE CAN’T IRRIGATE.’ – Mohamed Elmadi, a farmer in the High Atlas Mountains of rural Morocco

Mohamed Elmadi, a local farmer, has never heard of the term climate change. But he knows it’s getting warmer.

Mr. Elmadi says that the river that runs along his small patch of farmland carries far less water than it used to during prime irrigation season. The reason is that the mountain snowpack at high elevations is getting lighter as temperatures warm. Precipitation that used to fall as snow now comes as rain, which significantly affects his apple trees and grapevines: Because snow melts slowly into the river, it normally produces water for crops in late summer.

“From May, June, July, August, the river is going down, down, down,” says Elmadi while seated in a gite – basic accommodations for adventure-hungry tourists – he runs with his brother. “There is less and less water. So people can’t irrigate.”

Yet the heavy early rains often cause the river to flood in the spring. Big storms have inundated his fields and sent large boulders cascading into the stream. A heavy rain last May wiped out his potato crop, and, for the first time, his fruit trees were damaged. 

“There is a solution” for reducing flood exposure, says Elmadi, as he trudges through his sodden field on an aluminum-gray day. 

He wants more gabions – wire containers filled with concrete blocks – to deflect the river. But as in many rural regions of developing nations, infrastructure is hard to come by.

“We can’t find anyone to make them,” says Elmadi. “It takes a lot of energy and people and machinery.”

•     •     •

While climate change is affecting food production in rural Morocco, it is contributing to another problem as well: the exodus of people to cities. Many young people, in particular, see declining opportunities in the countryside. When they depart, they leave fewer people behind to maintain local traditions and customs.

“Once the kids finish elementary school here, there is no high school, so they have to go to the city,” says Moha Haddouch, a UNDP contractor who lives in the area. “If we had schools, a lot of people would stay here. They wouldn’t go to the city at all.” 

That has certainly been the case in Megdaz, a dusty collection of red-ocher clay houses farther up the mountain. The town’s very name means “wrong side” – the village doesn’t get much morning sunlight. Most of the people here, reliant on farming, are impoverished. 

Tijani Hassou remembers when local fields teemed with flaxen-colored maize and barley. But diminishing water supplies have curtailed harvests. As a result, many locals – both young and old – have moved to bigger cities such as Agadir, Casablanca, and Marrakech.

“I am very conscious of the river,” says Mr. Hassou. “Before it was full of water in the winter and the summer. Now in the summer it’s completely dry.” 

To adjust, Hassou has swapped out his barley and maize for walnut trees. The effect has been twofold: It has significantly reduced the amount of water he uses, and his walnuts bring more money in town.

“I’m planning to stay here all my life because the city is too expensive,” Hassou says. “Life here is OK.”

Yet not everyone has fended off a warming climate so easily. In local cultures like this, farmers pass down practices from generation to generation. Change comes slowly. That’s where governments and aid organizations come in. 

The Moroccan government, for one, is undertaking a number of initiatives to help the rural poor, maintain a vibrant Berber culture, and try to reduce overcrowding in cities. 

Officials in Rabat, for instance, planted 140,000 acres of desert with cactuses that now grow wild in Skhour Rhamna, a desolate area wedged between the Atlas Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean 60 miles north of Marrakech. In three years, they hope to hit 200,000 acres and eventually 350,000. Everything in the area is monochromatically brown, except for the cactuses.

The Moroccan government has planted vast swaths of drought-tolerant cactuses near Marrakech to help locals cope with climate change.

Fruit from the prickly pear produces an oil that is used in cosmetics, animal feed, and, soon, vinegar. The plants also sequester carbon emissions and boost soil health.

The cactuses have provided a new industry for communities that have relied largely on small-scale goat and sheep herding. But grazing has declined as the wheat used for animal feed has disappeared. “Lack of water was the big impact in the crop,” says Laouni Ferrak.

Mr. Ferrak is now a manager at Inovag, a factory in Skhour Rhamna that extracts the oil from the prickly pear fruit. All the fruit gets mashed up in a processor, then vinegar and oil are pulled from the seeds. About 55 pounds of fruit are needed to make a quart of oil, which goes for $200 to $250 per quart. The company can process as many as 210 gallons a day. Inovag’s founder, Alain Jouot, built the whole facility by hand. The result is a menagerie of aluminum, corrugated steel, conveyor belts, and plastic fermentation vats. It’s the board game “Mouse Trap” come to life.

A private equity fund for Banque Populaire, Morocco’s state bank, has invested $500,000 in the company. “The purpose of all of this is to keep people ... here to have jobs,” says Adil Rzal, the fund’s managing director, standing in a room piled with burlap bags of prickly pears.

Ferrak, a former farmer with four children, says the factory has given him a new start. The company also employs 11 other people and pays four drivers to collect prickly pears from the roughly 80 people who pick them from the boulevards of cactuses across the undulating landscape.

“It’s an opportunity for people living in the area, for my family ... I can have my money at the end of the month,” says Ferrak.

•     •     •          

Efforts are under way to boost the production of argan oil at Moussa’s cooperative as well. Mr. Bergigui, the UN development analyst, is working with locals on a scheme to preserve the prized but besieged argan forest.

He’s trying to get the Moroccan government to act on a decades-old pledge to subsidize farmers who improve soil quality, reduce erosion, and tame floods through land terracing. It would place a monetary value on land-management practices that typically don’t factor into the price of an agricultural product.

Bergigui and others are also pushing the idea of collecting green donations from tourists. Under this plan, ecotourism companies would nudge visitors to voluntarily give small contributions – say, $7 – to offset carbon emissions from their travel to the area. The money would go to argan farmers, helping them compete against foreign companies now undercutting their prices in the global marketplace.

Ecotourism operators in Latin American countries, such as Peru, have already used such arrangements with some success. At least “we’ve got to try it,” says Bergigui.

The women at Moussa’s cooperative would certainly welcome the monetary assistance. The price they receive for argan oil has been falling. Moussa blames mechanization and competition from (mostly French) cosmetic companies. Forest degradation hasn’t helped, either. “Once upon a time argan was a widespread product,” Moussa says. “For women, widowed women especially, it meant they would not have to rely on men.”

The women are eager to find ways to close the gap between the $25 per quart that private companies pay for the oil and the $60 per quart that would provide a decent living.

Perhaps counterintuitively, Moussa thinks enrolling more women in the cooperative will help – by reversing forest loss. They’re good environmental stewards, she says, because their livelihoods depend on a healthy forest. So Moussa has opened satellite offices in villages across the region.

Though her project is tiny relative to the vast numbers of rural poor worldwide, what Moussa and her backers are trying to do here symbolizes the kind of solutions that experts say could help, place by place, around the globe: a ground-up, self-sustaining system that reverses environmental degradation, strengthens economic security, and reduces emissions all at once.

As Moussa puts it: “If it was not for the local population, the argan forest would have been gone a long time ago.” 

ρ This story was supported by a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.


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