Forty-five minutes from vibrant and busy Marrakesh, in the province of Al Haouz, a breath-taking scenery of green terraces takes over the landscape to reveal the lush of High Atlas Mountains. The mountains serve as a barrier between the northern Mediterranean climates and southern desert climates of the Sahara. The ecosystem represents a consistent landscape and is home to rich forest biodiversity with endemic tree species, abundant flora and aromatic plants.
However, the ecosystems these mountains support are threatened by overexploitation for livestock, overgrazing, firewood collection, other unsustainable practices carried out by local communities to provide for their own livelihoods.
Since 2006, the High Atlas Foundation (FHA), in partnership with the Small Grants Program of the Global Environment Facility (GEF SGP) and the Ministry of Energy, Mines, Water and Environment of Morocco, has been working with the local population to regenerate degraded soils and fight the degradation of forest cover through the preservation, improvement and enhancement of walnut trees in the High Atlas Mountains, particularly those that border with Protected Areas.
Introduced in Morocco five centuries ago, walnuts are a pillar of biodiversity and a key part of local economy for the multiple benefits they offer to the local communities: wood for construction, foliage for cattle, and nuts for consumption.
From an ecological perspective, walnut trees improve soil structure and are an alternative to low-paying and cover destructive cattle ranching. Due to these factors, walnut production was included in the Plan Maroc Vert, the National Strategy for Agricultural Development of the Ministry of Agriculture.
This GEF SGP-supported project aimed at improving walnut cultivation and sustainable production by developing a community nursery along with a sustainable management plan. The community was involved throughout the project cycle, from project design to implementation. As a result, the project has improved forest coverage and soil quality, as well as resilience of the locals to climate change as they learned how to better deal with droughts and floods.
In terms of livelihoods, the incomes of the population have been raised through the introduction of resilient walnut plants at low prices to local farmers allowing them to expand and improve the quality of their orchards, launching walnuts processing activities, and supporting marketing of nut products.
The project also supported the cooperative to get ECOCERT certification of their production processes and nut processing to increase the economic potential of the sector.
One walnut kilo is currently estimated at 5.8 USD. With ECOCERT label and organic certification, one kilo can be sold for 13 USD in the United States. As a result, the selling price of nuts produced by the project had a net increase of up to 40% of the original price.
Overall, 6,500 people, including 1,000 women, have benefited from the impact of the project. The gender empowerment component of the project is also an important one to mention, as it was a key goal of the project and it has involved women in all activities, including the processing and marketing of walnut products through the cooperative.