15 Nov 2017
Souss Valley, Morocco
Sustainable Tourism

Ottmane El Filali is quick to point out that the scraggly vegetation in the surrounding countryside is not dead. He is referring to the argan trees that make up the world’s only argan tree forest. It is a unique bit of biodiversity found in the Souss Valley, a pocket of Morocco between the coastal cities of Essaouira and Agadir.

Despite being alive, the trees have shed their small leaves, a survival tactic to minimize the amount of water needed to continue growing. Argan trees, El Filali says, gesturing again at the spiky branches, can sustain themselves on just 180 millimeters of liquid a year — and the moisture can be absorbed as humidity through the rough holes in the tree’s trunk.

El Filali makes his career through fun facts like this. A native of Essaouira, he is a tour guide with Ecotourisme et Randonnées (Ecotourism and Hiking), a walking tour outfit found in Essaouira’s maze of medina. Among tours of the argan forest, the company runs various half- and full-day tours for those eager to learn more about — or just be out in — the Moroccan countryside.

Essaouira’s first ecotourism project:

Ecotourisme et Randonnées was started in 2008 by Frédérique Thevenet and Edouard Pottier, a pair of French expatriates living in Essaouira. In 2006, the couple opened the doors on Restaurant La Découverte (The Discovery Restaurant) in Essaouira and wanted to expand their environmental efforts. Pottier had worked for 18 years as a ranger with the French National Forests Agency, and the couple was eager to continue sharing his knowledge and passion with a Moroccan audience.

“Ecotourism is part of our values,” says Thevenet. “We have always paid attention to our impact on the environment and passed that onto our children, too. That’s why it was important to put it in place here and try to transmit a little bit to Moroccan families.”

Thevenet is sitting in a corner of Restaurant La Découverte, which remains a cozy nook to escape Essaouira’s notorious Atlantic gusts. Frédérique and her team of four serve classic Moroccan tagines and pastillas, using fresh, local ingredients and making items like bread, yogurt, and pasta in-house.

The couple found El Filali shortly after starting the walking tours. A geology graduate who had previously guided informal camel tours with his brother, El Filali started on a two-month term and has now been with the company for nine years. During high season, he can offer as many as six tours a week, each highlighting a different natural site, including the Cap Sim sand dunes, Sidi M’Barek waterfall, and Wadi Ksob.

With information about the biodiversity of each, Ecotourisme et Randonnées ensures tourists walk away with a better sense and appreciation of the local environment.

Preserving the Moroccan countryside:

Back in the argan tree forest, El Filali explains the importance of preserving the biodiversity of the Souss Valley. Argan trees, alongside Thuja trees, have come under threat for various reasons, including creeping urbanization and the demand for new agricultural space. None, though, is as eyebrow-raising as a certain local scene: goats in trees. “They work as a team, the goats and camels,” El Filali says. “The goats climb and eat the nuts in the branches and the camels eat what they can reach from the ground.”

It is comedic to see, but the impact of goats and other factors is no joke: according to El Filali, what was two million hectares (20,000 square kilometers) of argan trees during the 20th century has shrunk to 830,000 hectares (8,300 square kilometers).

That is not good news for the environment, or for the value that argan fruit brings to the region. Argan oil has become a valuable export in recent years, and is coveted for both cuisine and cosmetics. Ultimately, El Filali says it is a matter of helping locals understand the difference between short- and long-term gain. “People want to let the goats eat because they can sell or eat the animal immediately,” he says. “But argan trees are more long-term than even the olive harvest because they need less water.”

One of the ways Ecotourisme et Randonnées is persuading residents to preserve the argan forest is by providing local Berber families with solar ovens. Left exposed under the intense Moroccan sun, the ovens can cook food just as effectively as a wood-stoked fire or propane tank, albeit more slowly.

“In France, we use a lot of these solar ovens and know the importance of solar energy,” Thevenet says of the stoves, which they have provided to two households. “We wanted to do a little thing to try to have Moroccans understand how important solar is for all of us. Using these ovens also spares you the time of collecting wood in the forest, and saves trees.”

El Filali is the first to recognize that changing the mentality is a process, particularly with these solar ovens. “If people are used to using wood for cooking they want to keep using it because it has a certain taste,” he says. “People also burn the wood to get heat. Solar is really a change to their lifestyle, and getting them to do that can be like asking a Moroccan to drink tea without sugar.”

Environmental education in schools:

So how do you change a mentality? Ecotourisme et Randonnées’s tactic is to foster a sense of environmentalism among Morocco’s next generation. “We think that ecotourism and environmental awareness must go through the children,” Thevenet explains.

The company has created programs for private Moroccan schools, including games and composting and recycling workshops that help children understand the importance of their surrounding environment. They also go on field trips to nearby sand dunes where they show children the effects of desertification and why it is important for vegetation to maintain the habitat.

As with the solar ovens, solar energy is another area of focus for school programs. “In the future, we would like to do classes on solar energy. In Europe, it is taking time to bring the environment into schools, and here it will also take time,” Thevenet says.

With roots firmly placed in Essaouira, and connections with the surrounding schools and communities, Ecotourisme et Randonnées wants to make sure tourists — and local residents — see the value of Souss Valley’s unique biodiversity for years to come.




Website: www.essaouira-randonnees.com

Photos: Courtesy of Ecotourisme et Randonnées.

Hilary is a journalist, photographer, and maker of things. She loves working with entrepreneurs to share their stories and has done so around the world.Hilary Duff
Take a walkabout in the Moroccan countryside with Essaouira’s only ecotourism company | The Switchers
Ecotourisme et Randonnées Sustainable Tourism