Saturday, November 05, 2005

U.S. Science in a UNESCO World Heritage Site

"When we think of "Life in the Treetops" goats may not spring immediately to mind. But the Moroccan Argan Tree is a veritable 3 dimensional meadow." (The-Tree.Org.UK)

The Argan Tree (Argania spinosa) is locally known as The Tree Of Life, because it helps to make life possible for many creatures in the semi-arid desert of south Morocco. Its roots travel deep to find water and help to bind the soil. Tree root systems also facilitate water infiltration and aquifer replenishment.

According to the New York Times,* "for centuries, the Berbers in this stark coastal corner of North Africa have followed the goats around as they climbed the spiny, evergreen argan trees to eat their leaves and leathery olive-sized fruit. They collect the undigested pits that the goats spit up or excrete and split them to extract the bitter kernels inside, which they grind and press to make a nutty oil used in cooking and cosmetics. The oil was sold in Moroccan markets even before the Phoenicians arrived, yet the hardy argan tree, called the Moroccan ironwood by some people, has been slowly disappearing."

Unfortunately, overgrazing by goats and over-harvesting by a growing, wood-hungry local population have whittled the number of surviving argan trees down to less than half of what it was 50 years ago.

However, now the Argon Forest area has been made a "World Heritage Site". Moreover, Smith recounts, "Unesco declared a 10,000-square-mile swath of land between the Atlantic and the Atlas Mountains a 'biosphere reserve' and provided money to manage the trees' preservation."

Mark Dafforn of the National Academy of Sciences informs me that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), through its CDR/MERC program has been supporting argan research for a few years, and it has made significant inroads especially regarding propagation. The U.S. Israel Cooperative Development Research Program (CDR) and the Middle East Regional Cooperation Program (MERC) are long standing programs which promote peaceful cooperation between Israel and other nations by funding collaborative research.

Thus we see behind the scenes synergies between bilateral and multilateral efforts supported by the United States.
*Smith, Craig S., "Hungry Goats Atop a Tree, Doing Their Bit for Epicures," The New York Times, October 27, 2005.

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