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From left: Dr. Tara Deubel, Natasha Sutton, Shaye Soifoine, and Zach Whiteman. (Photo courtesy of Tara Deubel)

From left: Dr. Tara Deubel, Natasha Sutton, Shaye Soifoine, and Zach Whiteman. (Photo courtesy of Tara Deubel)

Sustainable women's argan oil field school in Morocco creates hands-on research experiences for students

In the summer of 2023, two students from the USF College of Arts and Sciences Department of Anthropology (Shaye Soifoine, an applied anthropology PhD student, and Zach Whiteman, an undergraduate in anthropology), as well as one student from the College of Engineering (Natasha Sutton, MS student in engineering) participated in a successful four-week field school in Morocco.

Moroccan women preparing argan kernels for processing. (Photo courtesy of Tara Deubel)

Moroccan women preparing argan kernels for processing. (Photo courtesy of Tara Deubel)

The project, which is funded by a three-year National Science Foundation International Research for Students (NES-IRES) grant, is led by Dr. Tara Deubel, an associate professor of anthropology, and USF alumna Dr. Colleen Naughton from the University of California, Merced College of Engineering. The project is also made possible through a partnership with Foundation Dar Si Hmad in Agadir, Morocco.

In southwestern Morocco, women produce edible and cosmetic oil from the fruit of the argan tree (Argania spinosa) in a labor-intensive process. The tree species is indigenous to the region is protected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) biosphere zone. The tree also helps to protect the area from soil erosion and desertification.

Deubel, who is helping to oversee the project, shared that her interest in the process and impact on the region began when she was visiting Morocco on her own academic pursuits.

“In 2018-19, I spent a year living in Agadir, Morocco as a Fulbright faculty fellow and had the opportunity to visit several women's argan oil cooperatives in southwestern Morocco during my time there,” she said. “I became interested in the impacts of this global industry on the Moroccan women who produce the oil.”

“Dr. Naughton and I are both Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. We served in the bordering countries of Burkina Faso and Mali and share an interest in cross-cultural training and international education,” she explained. “We designed the project with anthropologist Dr. Jamila Bargach at Foundation Dar Si Hmad in Morocco and received a three-year NSF-IRES research grant (2022-24) to bring graduate and undergraduate students to Morocco.”

“During their time spent at the field school, participants used an interdisciplinary perspective to investigate the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of small-scale argan oil production through a variety of hands-on methods from anthropology, engineering, and geographic information systems (GIS),” Deubel said.

Participants also learned about the challenges and benefits of this industry for the women producers, households, and cooperatives involved at the local level and developed cross-cultural skills working with Moroccan research assistants and study participants.

“Through this project, students gained valuable hands-on experience doing ethnographic fieldwork as part of an interdisciplinary team with engineers. In addition to cultural skills and language training in Morocco, they learn research methods such as designing surveys and conducting interviews,” she said.

Working toward a PhD in applied anthropology, Soifoine said her time spent in the field school has been invaluable.

“I started graduate school during the pandemic in Fall 2020, so I couldn’t conduct international research for my MA degree. After earning a BA in anthropology from Missouri State University with a minor in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) in 2017, I joined the Peace Corps as an education volunteer in the Comoros and subsequently taught English at a primary school in Thailand. So, I have a lot of international experience, but this field school was my first opportunity to conduct research abroad,” she shared. 

“I was excited about this field school in particular because of its location and research topic. I intend to do my dissertation research in the Comoros which is a majority Muslim country which was formerly colonized by France just like Morocco. From the beginning, I thought of this field school as an opportunity to gain comparative knowledge of another Islamic and Francophone country.”

Soifoine said that some memories made during her time in the field school went beyond academics and research.

“One memorable moment was when one of the student translators, Sara, and I were conducting an interview with a Moroccan woman who was uninterested in joining a cooperative but had instead started producing argan oil at her home upon demand for a small number of clients. I spoke in English and Sara started translating in Darija (Moroccan Arabic), but the woman soon recognized from Sara’s pronunciation that she was Amazigh and a native speaker of Tashelhit (an indigenous Amazigh language). The woman shared this identity and language and was filled with joy to speak Tashelhit during the interview. Their connection instantly made the interview unfold with more familiarity and lightness,” she explained. “I remember all of us laughing together throughout the interview.”

“When you are wrapping up an interview, it is common practice to ask the interviewee if they have any questions for you. Most of the time they say ‘no.’ This woman, however, was excited when the interview ended, because she wanted to ask Sara and me all about ourselves. It was a fun interaction filled with shared happiness and storytelling. It was also a touching reminder of the deep affinity we all have with our mother tongues.”

Field school participants seated for a traditional Moroccan meal. (Photo courtesy of Tara Deubel)

Field school participants seated for a traditional Moroccan meal. (Photo courtesy of Tara Deubel)

She also shared her takeaways from her experience in Morocco.

“I really enjoyed taking basic Darija language lessons from the project’s partner organization, Dar Si Hmad. I learned a lot about Amazigh people’s fight for property rights over argan trees and for socio-economic benefits tied to argan oil production, since their indigenous knowledge forms the basis of argan oil production in the country. I also learned a lot about Morocco both through classes and the embodied experience of being there – eating the food, hearing the soundscapes of the country, visiting everyday spaces, like markets, and more touristic areas, like argan oil cooperatives, and speaking with women argan oil producers and sellers,” Soifoine said. “More practically, I learned about conducting international research with an interdisciplinary team as well as working with translators.”

Deubel is optimistic that these types of projects and cross-cultural experiences can have a real-world impact, not just for the regions where they may be based, but for the students and individuals who participate.

“I hope that students will experience the vibrancy of Moroccan culture and develop a career interest in doing international research that contributes to global sustainable development goals. I think the project will help participants see the importance of using an anthropological lens to approach complex issues from multiple points of view.”

The final year of the program will take place in July 2024.

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