Arganosphere: Ethnographies of Socio-techno-legal Assemblages in the Moroccan Souss

Taking historical instances of globalization as a point of departure, the project analyzes how a unique forest ecosystem integrates into the global economy in the form of a local natural resource. It addresses the ways normative and technological elements intertwine and are coproduced in the politics of natural resource use. Special attention is paid to the ways in which such entanglements of lawmaking with science, technology, and other knowledge regimes interact in scalar arrangements with complex plural legal configurations on the ground.

The argan region has been designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve on account of its unique forest ecosystem. At the same time, it is also a ‘Garden of Europe’, i.e. the site of high-standard agrobusiness cash-crop production; this activity goes back to the time of the French protectorate in Morocco (1912-1956) and has seen progressive technologization of extractive practices. The region is a site in which multiple worlds come into contact, each with different, but interrelated, notions of resource extraction, different epistemic visions of knowledge production, and normative and techno-normative standards of ordering.

While there exists a wide variety of established modes of resource use, three interdependent and mutually constitutive and coproduced forms of human intervention in the landscape are of particular importance: high-standard agrobusiness cash-crop production, especially methods that integrate the woodlands into global cash-crop production; mobile herding; and forest exploitation proper with argan oil as a secondary product.

Following an STS-inspired approach, this project studies the transformation of an ecosystem from ‘being a forest’ into a plantation via lawmaking, bioprospecting and techno-normative tree standardization and molecular tree enhancement. At the same time, it looks at how the argan zone constitutes a site of multispecies encounter and more-than-human normativity. Collaborative resistance to technoscientific optimization of the argan woodlands and the legal consequences of this connects humans, trees, mycorrhizal fungi and many others. The arganosphere thus constitutes an extended community of plural law and legal practice. The normative power of technoscientific practices and artifacts, of matter and materiality, joins with the plural legal configurations on the ground, creating socio-techno-legal assemblages. What Turner refers to as the ‘arganosphere‘ thus constitutes an extended community of plural law and legal practice.

Part of the research is to investigate in which ways resource transformation, by means of technological innovation and normative framing, is co-occurring with social transformation. Besides the established rural elite that had appeared in the wake of post-independence state building, the focus is directed, first, on the emergence of a rural neo-elite that would seem to be networking at a larger scale, second, on the struggles of an unstable and small middle class that has developed in the shadow of the post-independence rural elite, and, third, on the decline of the standards of living of the majority of the rural poor. In this social fabric, the third group appears threatened by neoliberal market integration as the target of expropriation strategies, while increasingly pushed to assume greater responsibility.

The research shows how this delegation of responsibility for the conservation and the sustainability of forest exploitation management to local use rights holders involves the transformation of a local staple into an exploitable global commodity as a niche product. From this angle, the research contributes to the ongoing debate revolving around the transformation of the access rights of local people into responsibilities for resource sustainability as implicit forms of ‘de facto soft land and resource grabbing’.

Due to intensified and competitive resource exploitation and the intervention of various transnational providers of legal templates, development actors, INGOs, global governance institutions, and activists of transnational political Islam, conflict constellations have been exacerbated and become even more complex.

Moroccan Argan Oil

At the center of this study is the emergence of argan oil on the world market. Elements of this argan oil economy include: a global supply-chain infrastructure and the specific normativity that governs it; production cooperatives as interfaces integrating a local economy of solidarity into global markets; biotechnology; and pharmaceutical and cosmetic multinational enterprises.

Argan oil is one of the world’s most expensive nutritional oils. Prized for its unique nutty flavors, it has even found its way into the world of high-end cuisine. The oil has also become an important ingredient in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. It is a non-timber forest product extracted from the fruits of the argan tree, which is endemic to southwest Morocco. The infrastructure that links up production with consumption also connects local Amazigh people with the global economy and, it is claimed, supports nature conservation and sustainable resource management of the endangered argan woodlands ecosystem.

The case study illustrates how legal pluralism is inherently inscribed into infrastructural design. It analyzes global value-chain (GVC) infrastructures connected with argan oil harvesting and looks at the emergence of this oil as a niche product that has been ‘bio-prospected’ from a local natural resource and launched onto the global market.

STS inspired methodology is helpful in addressing such setting:

Processes of ‘translation’ become apparent whereby the argan oil supply chain turns out to serve as a translation machine. Ethnography explores how unregulated spaces go through specific technological and legal processes as they are turned into managed exploitation with attendant infrastructures for delivering goods to markets. While there has been much socio-legal and STS research into the process of transformation of nature into social products, this transformation is not well understood regarding the normative pluralism that both goes into the new levels of resource use and is itself a product of exploitative processes.

Can ‘natural’ argan oil, a product of a ‘wild’ forest, be sustainably recreated as a plantation product? Translation processes include the transfer of meaning, significance, interpretation, and agency from science to technology to law to diverse knowledge regimes to practices and applications. Translation includes the ways that materiality translates into rules and normative content translates into technology (when forests become managed eco-reserves). Translation thus connotes the mobility of law-, technology-, and science-based items that can be detached from their contexts and then transformed into something else, with unpredictable effects in both the new environment and the environment of origin.

The research also explores how ‘boundary objects’ may become ‘naturalized’ in a particular setting. In the case of argan oil, for example, some international actors are working to develop the argan forest so that it can produce an internationally certified and sustainable product, despite lack of consensus around such normatively loaded concepts as biosphere, ecosystem, nature reserve, conservation, cooperatives, development, traceability, and product purity.

Through techno-science, the notions of nature and conservation as legal and material enactments are translated into boundary objects. The arganosphere has received three major UNESCO designations that play a key role in shaping the legal framework: first, it was recognized in 1998 as the ‘Arganeraie Biosphere Reserve‘ in the ‘Man and Biosphere‘ Programme (MAB); in 2014 it was inscribed in UNESCO‘s list of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity‘ (ICHH), with the stated goal of protecting ‘argan practices and know-how concerning the argan tree‘; and third, in 2018, the ‘argan-based agro-sylvo-pastoral system‘ was listed as one of the ‘Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems‘ (GIAHS), a designation that has a specific focus on regional conventional terrace cultivation. The biological diversity of argan is protected in accordance with the legal template of a UNESCO biosphere reserve in restricted areas, with untouched forest stands that serve as gene pools for further research. ‘Reforestation’ in the case of argan trees means standardization of the resource and not a return to natural forests. Further, the technical production schemes involve new normative templates (developed at the level of global governance) that rule labour standards and modes of production.

‘Infrastructures’ contain embedded narratives on what they are thought to be good for; in the case of argan oil, combining nature conservation with rural empowerment and creating new edible, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic products. The main layers of this infrastructure are identified as corresponding with the elements of neoliberal resource design: the normative framing of the resource, the formation of production cooperatives and supply units as appropriate tools for a ‘socially responsible’ inclusion of local people, and the setup of an overarching infrastructural design for harvesting the base product. At the center of this research are the consequences of such a strategic alignment for local people, holders of use rights, and their multispecies associates in the Moroccan southwest in general, with particular attention given to livelihood conditions and legal agency.

An analysis is conducted of how configurations of inventories of knowledge, legal repertoires (state legislation, customary law, Islamic normativities, project law, transnational legal templates, etc.), and technologies all meet a variety of requirements necessary for profitable global commodification at once: the transformation of local knowledge into capitalizable intellectual property; the divestment of the rights of the local population and their transformation into responsibilities for resource sustainability; the securing of the continuous provision of the original product to the industry, and its association with the economy of solidarity and equity as a fairly traded, certified, labeled, and protected eco-organic niche product and health good.

From there, the question ensues as to the extent that such transformative processes lead to repercussions on the transnational scale as well.

The main socio-legal approaches to understanding the arganosphere’s biodiversity, nature-cultures, more-than-human and multispecies agency, conservation, environment, and plant manipulation technologies include the rights-of-nature debate and its interplay with the concepts of pluriversal law and onto-legalities, its inherent socio-techno-normativity and eco-normativity as a matter of care. One major goal of this project is to shed light on the ways that the analysis of those techno-legal assemblages can contribute to the decolonialization of the nomosphere by challenging the notion of a unifying legal universe.


Law, science and technology (LST); extractive economies; infrastructure; supply chain legal pluralism; legal pluriverse, transnational legal templates [CBD; Man and the Biosphere; Nagoya Protocol; human rights; indigenous rights; women’s rights; TRIPS; IPR; anti-terrorism legislation]; and trans-scalar legal arrangements; global governance; development cooperation; project law; integration of natural resources into the global economy, transformation of a local staple into a global commodity and niche product [economy of solidarity, certifications; labeling; PGI; CS/ER; benefit sharing models, patent disclosure requirements; cooperatives]; plural legal configuration [state legislation, customary law, Islamic normativities; property and inheritance; land tenure; usufruct rights]; cash crop production; argan forest; Morocco; Souss; Islamic activism, care, mobility, accountability.


2022 ‘Legal Pluralism in Infrastructural Designs: Alternative Supply Chains in the Moroccan Argan Business’, Science, Technology, & Human Values DOI: 10.1177/01622439211042666

2020 (with Melanie G. Wiber) ‘Law, Science, and Technologies’ in: Marie-Claire Foblets, Mark Goodale, Maria Sapignoli, and Olaf Zenker (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Law and Anthropology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198840534.013.44

2016 ‘Supply-chain legal pluralism: normativity as constitutive of chain infrastructure in the Moroccan argan oil supply chain’, Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law 48, 3: 378-414.
2015 'Die normativ-technologische Konstruktion einer Wertschöpfungskette: Arganöl aus Marokko', Max Planck Gesellschaft Jahrbuch 2015.
2014 ‘Neoliberal Politics of Resource Extraction: Moroccan Argan Oil’, Forum for Development Studies 41,2: 207-232.

2013 'Arganöl – eine Weltkarriere: Teil II: Wertschöpfungsketten und Ressourcenmanagement', Journal Culinaire 17: 103–118.
2013 'Arganöl – eine Weltkarriere: Teil I: Gastronomische Spezialität und industrieller Rohstoff', Journal Culinaire 16: 97–108.
2010 (with Melanie Wiber) 'Moral Talk: The Ontological Politics of Sustainable Development', Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology Working Papers No. 123 (36 pp.)
2009 'Intervention transnationale et la morale dans la gestion de la propriété en milieu rural au Maroc', Anthropologica. Journal of the Canadian Anthropology Society 51(1): 81–93.
2009 (with Melanie G. Wiber) 'Conjonctions paradoxales: Propriété rurale et accès aux ressources dans un environnement transnational', Anthropologica. Journal of the Canadian Anthropology Society 51(1): 15–28.
2009 'Religious message and transnational interventionism: constructing legal practice in Moroccan Souss', in: Permutations of Order: Religion and Law as Contested Sovereignties. Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 185–209.
2008 'Whose Complementarity? Social Lines of Conflict between Mobile Pastoralism and Agriculture in the Context of Social Differentiation in the Moroccan Sus', Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology Working Papers No. 101 (34 pp.).
2007 (with Franz von Benda-Beckmann and Keebet von Benda-Beckmann) ‘Umstrittene Traditionen in Marokko und Indonesien’, Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 132(1): 15–35.
2007 'Imposing new concepts of order in rural Morocco: Violence and transnational challenges to local order', in: Keebet von Benda-Beckmann and Pirie, Fernanda (eds.): Order and Disorder: Anthropological Perspectives. Oxford and New York: Berghahn, 90–111.
2007 'Social lines of conflict between mobile pastoralism and agriculture in the Moroccan Souss', in: Ingo Breuer and Gertel, Jörg (eds.): Pastoral Morocco: Globalizing Scapes of Mobility and Insecurity. Wiesbaden: Reichert, 193–210.
2006 'Competing global players in rural Morocco: upgrading legal arenas', Journal of Legal Pluralism 53/54 (Special issue: Dynamics of Plural Legal Orders, (eds.) Franz von Benda-Beckmann and Keebet von Benda-Beckmann): 101–139.
2005 'Der Wald im Dickicht der Gesetze: Transnationales Recht und lokale Rechtspraxis im Arganwald (Marokko)', Entwicklungsethnologie 14(1&2): 97–117.
2005 Local legal repertoires, access to natural resources, and the impact of transnational legal actors, in: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (ed.): Report 2004 – 2005, Halle/Saale: dmv, 244–246.
2005 Lokales Recht, Ressourcenzugang und der Einfluss transnationaler Rechtsakteure in Südwest-Marokko, in: Günther Schlee (ed.): Max-Planck Institut für ethnologische Forschung Bericht Sonderausgabe 2005, Halle/Saale: dmv, 192–196.
2003 Chr'ka in Southwest Morocco: Forms of Agrarian Cooperation between Khammessat System and Legal Pluralism, in: Rajendra Pradhan (ed.): Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law in Social, Economic and Political Development. Papers of the XIIIth International Congress, 7-10 April 2002, Chiang Mai, Thailand, Vol. III. Kathmandu: ICNEC, 227–255.
2003 Legal Dimensions of Natural Resource Management in the Argan Zone in Southwestern Morocco: between sustainable development and ‘taking the best from nature’, in: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (ed.): Report 2002–2003. Halle/Saale: dmv, 283–286.
2002 Chr'ka im Südwesten Marokkos: Kooperationen im Agrarbereich zwischen Khammessat-System und Rechtspluralismus, in: Anke Reichenbach, Seige, Christine and Streck, Bernhard (eds.): Wirtschaften. Festschrift Wolfgang Liedtke, Gehren: Escher Verlag, 69–100.
2001 Die Persistenz traditioneller Konfliktregelungsverfahren im Souss; Marokko, in: Wolfgang Fikentscher (ed.): Begegnung und Konflikt – eine kulturanthropologische Bestandsaufnahme (Bayerische Akademie der Wiss., Phil.-Hist. Kl., Abhandlungen, N.F., H.120) München: C.H. Beck, 187–202.
2000 Sustainable Development and Indigenous Conceptions of Natural Resources Management in the Argan Forest of SW Morocco, in: Milka Castro Lucic (ed.): Actas del XII Congreso International de la Comisión de Derecho Consuetudinario y Pluralismo Legal, 2 tomos. Santiago volume I, 490–504.
1999 Agrarethnographie, Ressourcennutzung und die Persistenz traditioneller kollektiver Wertvorstellungen und Rechtsauffassungen im Souss; Marokko, in: Hans Peter Hahn and Spittler, Gerd (eds.): Afrika und die Globalisierung, Hamburg: Lit Verlag, 491–501. (= Schriften der Vereinigung von Afrikanisten in Deutschland (VAD e.V.); volume 18).

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