PHD Info: Anthropology and Conservation

Students graduating their degrees.

Alumni Bernadette Montanari has recently completed her PhD at the University of Kent’s School of Anthropology and Conservation. For the past 9 years, she has been doing research in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco among Berber communities.

Dr. Montanari has had a passion for traditional and medicinal plants for a long time. Her research began in the Agoundis valley among an impoverished community of Berbers. After completing an MSc in Ethno-botany, Dr. Montanari decided to pursue a doctorate that would allow her to “give back” to the community who had welcomed her.

“The main priority [for the people of the valley] is to feed their families,” said Dr. Montanari. Throughout the year, the villagers harvest many different types of plants, but it is the harvesting of thyme that is one of the most valuable sources of income for the region.

Though thyme harvesting is essential to the Agoundis valley livelihood, the villagers receive only 1 euro cent per kilo of thyme. Every summer, 660 tonnes of thyme are harvested and destined to bigger essential oil distillation structures in Casablanca.

The thyme harvested by the villagers is wild thyme called Tymus satureioides. Analysis done by Dr. Montanari revealed that this species of thyme is particularly valuable for the essential oil market. However, the benefits of this lucrative trade go mainly to middlemen and officials rather than to the local population, maintaining the cycle of poverty in the area.

By the time Dr. Montanari began her PhD, development initiatives started to flow into Morocco, and a project to distil essential oil was set up in order to combat the extreme poverty in the valley.

Traditionally, essential oil distillation is done with a mobile unit, travelling from village to village. Because the equipment is old and slow and often overheats, the quality of the extracted oils are often compromised. The new distillery was intended to improve the quality of the oil produced, allowing the villagers to sell their oil at a higher price.

Dr. Montanari decided to investigate the effectiveness of the implementation of the distilling project and through this research find entrepreneurial solutions that would help the valley community.

However, after years of research, Dr. Montanari found that the distillation project has been hindered by the involvement of middle-men and as a result has not changed much for the locals of the valley.

“The implementation of a project on such a scale is not a straightforward operation,” says Dr. Montanari. “For it to succeed, it requires an integrated approach that combines both external interventions and inherent communities features.”


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