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Farming a Warmer Planet

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

FEBRUARY 12, 2017  AIT HSSAINE, MOROCCO —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.

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.

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