Experiments with market_based mechanisms -- for example, eco-tourism or the trading of factory emissions -- have multiplied over the past decade. Across Africa, these approaches often aim for a "win_win" outcome: the poor benefit and resources are conserved. But the actual net effects of these programs are poorly understood.
The theory behind market_based conservation strategies is simple: create markets for derivative products in order to increase the value that local people place on the resource, thus inducing them to conserve it. With this logic in mind, several groups seeking to protect Morocco's unique argan forests enthusiastically embraced commercialization of argan oil. The results should make other Africans cautious about the potential of market_based approaches to their environmental/development problems.
The argan tree is a unique, ecologically important component of southwest Morocco's arid ecosystem. During the 20th century, nearly half the argan forest disappeared due to demand for high quality charcoal and conversion of land to agriculture. In recognition of persistent threats to the argan forest, as well as of its uniqueness, UNESCO inducted these forests into the World Biosphere Reserve Network in 1999.
Berber tribes have relied for centuries on argan oil, which is extracted from the nuts inside the argan fruit, as a key component of their diet and as an element of traditional medicine. In the early 1990s, chemical analyses confirmed the oil's valuable nutritional and dermatological properties -- including as a treatment for acne, wrinkles, and light wounds. This science attracted the attention of development, conservation groups, and entrepreneurs alike.