Economic Botany

, Volume 67, Issue 2, pp 147–160

A Reward for Patience and Suffering: Ethnomycology and Commodification of Desert Truffles among Sahrawi Refugees and Nomads of Western Sahara


    • Department of Social SciencesWageningen University
  • Davide Rossi
    • Faculty of Veterinary MedicineUniversity of Bologna
  • Domenico Dentoni
    • Management Studies Group, School of Social SciencesWageningen University and Research Centre

DOI: 10.1007/s12231-013-9234-7

Cite this article as:
Volpato, G., Rossi, D. & Dentoni, D. Econ Bot (2013) 67: 147. doi:10.1007/s12231-013-9234-7

A Reward for Patience and Suffering: Ethnomycology and Commodification of Desert Truffles among Sahrawi Refugees and Nomads of Western Sahara. This paper reflects on the role of ethnobiological knowledge and practices for refugees’ agency by focusing on the use and commodification of desert truffles among the Sahrawi refugees of Western Sahara. Historically, desert truffles of the genera Terfezia and Tirmania have been an important food and medicinal resource for Saharan nomads. Today, after becoming refugees following war and forced displacement, the Sahrawi still harvest truffles for their use values, but most are sold in the Algerian town of Tindouf. This paper addresses Sahrawi food, medicinal, and veterinary uses of desert truffles, and the on–going process of commodification sustained by a high international demand and the need for cash income. This process of commodification has both helped refugees to generate income and triggered a recovery of traditional knowledge around desert truffles. However, it has also led to increasing harvesting pressure and competition among truffle collectors, thus giving rise to the risk of unsustainable harvest levels.

Key Words

TerfezTerfeziaTirmaniamedicinal usevalue chainSahrawi refugees

Una recompensa a la paciencia y el sufrimiento: La etnomicología y la mercantilización de las trufas del desierto entre los nómadas y refugiados saharauis del Sáhara Occidental. Este artículo reflexiona sobre el papel de los conocimientos etnobiológicos para los refugiados, centrándose en el uso y la comercialización de trufas del desierto entre los refugiados saharauis del Sáhara Occidental. Las trufas del desierto de los géneros Terfezia y Tirmania históricamente han sido un recurso importante para los nómadas del Sahara. Hoy en día, tras la guerra y los desplazamientos forzados, convertidos en refugiados, los saharauis aún cosechan trufas por sus numerosas propiedades, aunque comercializan la mayor parte de la cosecha con la ciudad argelina de Tinduf, a fin de obtener algunos ingresos económicos. En el presente trabajo se aborda el uso alimentario, medicinal y veterinario de las trufas del desierto entre los saharauis, y su actual proceso de mercantilización gracias a la alta demanda internacional. Este proceso ayuda a los refugiados a realizar actividades que les generan un ingreso, al mismo tiempo que ha favorecido la recuperación de los conocimientos tradicionales en torno a la trufa del desierto. Asimismo, la comercialización de trufas ha dado lugar a un aumento de intensidad de la cosecha y a una competición entre cosechadores, abriendo la posibilidad de niveles de recolección insostenibles.

He decided to settle there…because he had discovered another treasure—desert truffles.... Once a man has tried such truffles, he spends the rest of his life longing to taste them again.... The truffles were like a reward for all his patience and suffering. (Al-Koni 2008, 128)


Over the past decade or so, there has been increasing interest in the knowledge and practices of migrating and displaced people within the fields of ethnobotany and ethnobiology (Pieroni and Vandebroek 2007; Voeks and Rashford 2013). On the other hand, refugee studies have long addressed issues related to refugees’ dependency on food aid and their agency (i.e., the capacity of individuals to act independently, making their own free choices) toward self–sufficiency and economic independence (Harvey and Lind 2005; Horst 2006). In spite of both of these trends, scholars have paid relatively little attention to the significance of ethnobiological knowledge and practices for refugees’ agency and refugee well-being (Bodeker et al. 2005; Volpato et al. 2012). This study aimed at investigating refugees’ use of traditional ethnobiological knowledge to earn income and reduce their dependency on aid, using Sahrawi refugees of Western Sahara and their use of desert truffles as a case study.

Desert truffles are hypogeous mushrooms of the Pezizaceae family (Pezizales, Ascomycetes), while the more prominent among them belong to the genera Terfezia and Tirmania (Kagan-Zur and Roth-Bejerano 2008). Desert truffles have been used as food for thousands of years (Feeney 2002; Shavit 2008); currently, their fruit bodies are collected and appreciated in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, in the Maghreb states (Mauritania, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia), across the Sahara Desert, in Spain, in the Kalahari Desert, and in the Australian Outback (Mandeel and Al-Laith 2007; Rodríguez 2008; Trappe et al. 2008a; Trappe et al. 2008b). Saharan and Middle Eastern nomads have long used desert truffles as a source of food, as a food delicacy, and as an emergency resource in times of food scarcity (Gast 2000), and have marketed them in desert towns for hundreds of years (Feeney 2002; Lepp 2009).

In spite of the importance of desert truffles, scholars have paid little attention to their use among desert inhabitants. In contemporary North Africa and the Middle East, desert truffle collection is a temporary occupation that is as widespread as desert truffles themselves (Feeney 2002). Truffles are harvested and sold in local rural markets and for national and international trade (Kagan-Zur and Roth-Bejerano 2008) in places as diverse as Morocco (Khabar et al. 2001), Algeria (Gast 2000), Bahrain (Mandeel and Al-Laith 2007), and Saudi Arabia (Awameh and Alsheikh 1979). There is an ongoing process of commodification (i.e., the process of transformation of previously non–marketed or scarcely marketed goods into commodities) of desert truffles across their range. Recently, a number of studies have addressed wild mushroom commerce and commodification in a global trade (e.g., Sitta and Floriani 2008; Winkler 2008); but, to our knowledge, the process of commodification of desert truffles has not been studied.

In this paper, we address the historical and contemporary use of desert truffles by the Sahrawi nomads of Western Sahara. Because most Sahrawi nomads became refugees following the occupation of their nomadic territory by the Moroccan Army in 1975, we also address the use and economic importance of truffles in their livelihoods, and argue that commercial truffle exploitation represents an important source of income for many. We present and discuss data about: 1) desert truffles’ taxonomy and ecology according to the Sahrawi, and their harvesting practices; 2) food, medicinal, and veterinary uses; and 3) Sahrawi refugees’ engagement in the process of truffle commodification that has occurred for the past two decades, and its possible local social and environmental implications.


Historical Background

“Sahrawi” is the name given to the tribes of nomadic pastoralists who traditionally inhabited a coastal area of northwestern Africa including Western Sahara, northern Mauritania, and part of southwestern Algeria. The Sahrawi were nomadic peoples who pastured camels, goats, and sheep, and relied for food on livestock products as well as on dates, sugar, and cereals bartered for livestock in markets on the periphery of their nomadic areas (Caro Baroja 1955). In 1975, following Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, about 70,000 Sahrawi fled the Moroccan army and became refugees in southwestern Algeria (San Martin 2010). Today, after 16 years of war (1975–1991) that brought further refugees to the camps as well as high population growth, about 165,000 Sahrawi live in four refugee camps located in a desert plateau called Hamada near the Algerian town of Tindouf (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Map of the study area.

In the camps, refugees live in tents and mud brick huts, experiencing problems with both water and food supplies. Car batteries provide the main source of electricity. The European Union, bilateral development cooperation from certain countries, UN agencies, and several solidarity groups provide the refugees with food, shelter, and other basic commodities (San Martin 2010). In an attempt to improve the quality of life in the camps, over the years the refugees have developed an informal economy based on petty commerce by expanding trade routes through the camps from Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, and Spain (Bathia 2001; Dedenis 2005).

The refugees’ political representatives—the SADR (Sahrawi Arabic Democratic Republic) Government and the Polisario Front—have political control over the eastern part of Western Sahara, which was wrested from Moroccan control by means of a guerrilla war that lasted until the peace agreement of 1991 was signed (Bathia 2001). These inland areas of Western Sahara (the so–called “liberated territories,” which comprise approximately 20 percent of Western Sahara) are separated from the remaining “occupied territories” under the administering authority of the Moroccan government by a militarily-defended earthen wall.

In their efforts to improve their conditions, refugees have struggled in many ways to maintain or recover traditional livelihoods and cultural and social practices, from livestock husbandry to medicinal plant use (Volpato et al. 2007). Pastoral areas within the territories are important for these ends. These territories also continue to be inhabited by about 20,000–30,000 Sahrawi nomads who cross them with their herds and use as their principle commercial hubs the refugee camps, Tindouf and Zouérat.

The Study Area and Its Climate

The area under consideration in this study—i.e., the area where the Sahrawi collect and market desert truffles—includes the liberated territories of Western Sahara, northern Mauritania, and the refugee camp area in the Hamada of Tindouf. Across these areas, the climate is arid and continental: summer daytime temperatures surpass 50°C, while winter nighttime temperatures drop to 0°C. Precipitation is torrential, unpredictable, and patchy, with an annual average of 30–50 mm. Generally occurring at the end of the summer and throughout autumn, these rains represent the extreme northerly penetration of the African Monsoon from the South, or are associated with the Atlantic Westerlies from the west (Brooks et al. 2005). However, rainfall is highly irregular both annually and across the years; droughts are recurring phenomena.

Three main biogeographical areas can be distinguished: 1) the Tindouf Hamada; 2) Western Zemmur; and 3) Tiris. The Hamada of Tindouf, where the refugee camps are located, is a barren desert plateau where temperatures fluctuate between −5°C in winter to greater than 50°C in summer. Vegetation is poor, with scattered Acacia trees and tufts of annual or perennial herbs. The northern sector of the liberated territories—and the most important for truffle collection—is called Zemmur, which is characterized by sand and gravel plains in its eastern part, and by higher relief in its central and western parts, where it is gullied by inactive and occasionally active rivers. After rains, Zemmur exhibits a savanna–like environment dominated by AcaciaPanicum vegetation, while flowering prairies may appear on flat gravel areas. The southern sector, known as Tiris, is more arid than Zemmur and is characterized by flat sand and gravel plains from which characteristic black granite hills rise in clusters or in isolation. There are no dry riverbeds and hence the vegetation is mostly herbaceous and adventitious, and includes large areas covered by halophytic plants (Soler et al. 1999).


Research was conducted within Sahrawi refugee camps and in the liberated territories between 2006 and 2009. Methods included semi–structured and retrospective interviews (Weller 1998) with refugees and nomads, as well as a “walk in the woods” approach carried out with knowledgeable truffle harvesters (Cunningham 2001). Semi–structured interviews were developed on the basis of ethnomycologycal models (Yamin-Pasternak 2011) and collected data about truffle terminology, kinds, and characteristics; their ecology; collection; processing; storage; food, medicinal, and veterinary uses; and cultural and economic importance. Retrospective interviews were conducted with older informants and were aimed at understanding truffle use in nomadic livelihoods before the war and forced displacement. About 28 semi–structured interviews and eight retrospective interviews about desert truffles were conducted with nomads and refugees. The walk in the woods approach was carried out with four informants in the northern part of the liberated territories (i.e., in Bir Lehlou and Tifariti), where four truffle–harvesting sites were visited. During these visits and other interviews when truffles were at hand, informants were asked to separate them into “kinds” (if any) with the corresponding local names, uses, properties, and distinguishing characteristics.

Truffle harvesters and knowledgeable informants were identified through snowball sampling (i.e., we asked an initial pool of informants found randomly to point us to other collectors and knowledgeable informants they knew). Interviews were conducted in Hassaniya (the Arabic language with a Berber substrate spoken by the Sahrawi) and Spanish: local research assistants asked the questions in Hassaniya and translated the answers into Spanish, which is the second most frequently spoken language among the Sahrawi and which is spoken fluently by the first two authors, who conducted fieldwork. To ensure that, during the interview process, no mistakes were made with the translation and to clarify doubtful information, interviews were recorded and listened to again and transcribed with the help of the same research assistant. Transcripts were then entered into the qualitative data management software program Nvivo and coded, allowing us to explore Sahrawi knowledge and practices around desert truffles. Truffle prices in the refugee camps and in Tindouf were collected from vendors, while prices paid to Sahrawi truffle harvesters were obtained by interviews with the collectors themselves. On the basis of these prices and qualitative data, we used value chain analysis to discuss the commodification of desert truffles among the Sahrawi. Value chain analysis synthesizes the flow of a commodity from the production or collection stage up to final consumption, also considering the required inputs (Gereffi et al. 2005). This helps to understand where competition among suppliers or buyers may intensify, or where the predominance of one actor over the others (e.g., through the control of required resources, such as transport, processing, or storage) may create power dynamics within the chain and/or potential social or environmental tensions (Gereffi et al. 2005; Kaplinsky 2000). Before each interview was conducted, prior informed consent was obtained verbally after each participant was given an explanation of the methodology, aims, and outcomes of the study. Throughout the field study, the ethical guidelines adopted by the American Anthropological Association (AAA 1998) and by the International Society of Ethnobiology (2006) were followed.

Results and Discussion


The taxonomy and ecology of desert truffles are far from being completely understood. With regards to Africa, while there has been a good deal of research on desert truffles in the Mediterranean areas, little research has been conducted further south in the Sahara Desert. From what is known, it seems that the number of truffle species diminishes when moving southward from the Mediterranean coast toward the inner Sahara Desert. There, only the most xerotermophile species are found, namely Terfezia claveryi Chatin, T. boudieri Chatin, Tirmania pinoyi (Maire) Malençon, and T. nivea (Desf. ex Fr.) Trappe, as is the case in Morocco (Khabar et al. 2001), southern Algeria (Fortas and Chevalier 1992), and in the Libyan Sahara (Chatin 1891). In western Africa, desert truffles grow as far south as the fringes of the Sahel, and it is likely that Tirmania species prevail in very arid areas.

The geographical area dealt with in this paper is known to the Sahrawi as the badiya (i.e., where the “Bedouins” live). To date, no mycological study has identified the species of desert truffles present in the badiya, or in neighboring areas such as northern Mauritania or in that part of Western Sahara that is under Moroccan occupation. The identification of desert truffles used by the Sahrawi at the species level was not among the aims of this study; this task remains for other scholars to complete. Rather, we focus on classification at the genus level and on Sahrawi ethnotaxonomy of desert truffles. Two types of truffles are well known, commonly recognized, and found in the badiya: the first and most common, described as large and externally whitish or cream colored, is called terfez, and corresponds to Tirmania truffles; the second is reddish or dark red and smaller, is called shoba, and corresponds to Terfezia (e.g., Terfezia claveryi) truffles (Table 1, Figs. 2 and 3).
Table 1

Truffle species identified during ethnomycological study in Western Sahara.


Hassaniya name

Occurrence frequency



Tirmania spp.


Very common



Terfezia spp.

Terfez, shoba



Fig. 2

Terfezia and Tirmania truffles in a cardboard box (G. Volpato).
Fig. 3

Harvest of Tirmania truffles near Tifariti (D. Rossi).

However, the Sahrawi often use the name terfez as a generic to refer to both Terfezia and Tirmania truffles. In fact, although the classical Arabic name for desert truffles is kamaa, they are referred to by their Berber name—terfez (or terfes, terfas)—in Morocco and Western Sahara. Rather than regarding terfez and shoba as different truffles, a minority of informants considers the latter to be the younger and smaller form of the former. In any case, there is general agreement about truffles’ relative presence in the badiya, with shoba indicated as less common than terfez in the Western Sahara environment: the former grows preferentially in rocky deserts and plateaus such as in the Hamada of Tindouf, whereas the latter is said to grow in sandy soils or top soils such as those found in many areas of the liberated territories.


Desert truffles of the genus Terfezia and Tirmania establish mycorrhizal symbiosis mostly with roots of members of the family Cistaceae, such as several annual and perennial species of the genus Helianthemum (Gutiérrez et al. 2003). All Sahrawi informants identify a plant named erguig as the only host for truffles in the badiya. Erguig is the small perennial bush Helianthemum lippii (L.) Dum. Cours. (Cistaceae) (Fig. 4). It is a Saharo–Sindian species that grows in gravel plains, sandy areas, and silted plateaus across all of the Sahara (Ozenda 1991). In the badiya, it is particularly common in Zemmur (in northeastern Western Sahara and northern Mauritania), where it grows and flowers after rains, thus permitting mycorrhiza formation with vigorous hosts and fruiting of truffles. Indeed, the Sahrawi indicated this region (besides non–accessible areas of Western Sahara, e.g., in the surroundings of the capital El Aaiún) as the area where truffles are most abundant.
Fig. 4

Population of Helianthemum lippii near Tifariti. Note the ground moved by a truffler in the center–right of the picture (D. Rossi).

Across their range, desert truffles need an adequate amount of rain to fruit, estimated at about 150–200 mm per year (Awameh and Alsheikh 1979; Feeney 2002). Similar to the Tuareg nomads of southeast Algeria (Benchelah et al. 2000), the Sahrawi indicate that two or three intense rains over a period of one to three months are needed for fruiting, and that harvests begin about one month after the second or third rain. In the words of one informant, “After three rains, the desert has a present for us!” As rains in Western Sahara usually occur between September and December, the truffle–harvesting season there can be broadly defined as ranging from November to April, with a peak between January and March.

When truffles grow, they need to be located in order to be harvested. To do so, Sahrawi harvesters rely on their personal experience and on their ethnoecological knowledge of the badiya at a progressively specific level. They organize for the hunt about two to four weeks after the second rain: collectors move to areas of the badiya with specific soil characteristics that support erguig and truffle growth. Once there, they first locate erguig plants (which often form loose populations dispersed over an area of tens of square meters), because “where erguig grows, you can find terfez.” Some define erguig as the male plant and terfez as the female one, to stress their ecological association. Terfez may be found at a distance of between a few decimeters up to a few meters from erguig. Once erguig has been located, truffle harvesters locate the cracks produced by the growing truffles and scoop out the ground there, in much the same way that all desert truffle collectors do (Taylor et al. 1995). Then, they dig by hand and extract the truffle, usually just a few centimeters under the soil’s surface.

Food, Medicinal, and Veterinary Use

On the basis of retrospective interviews with older Sahrawi, local nomads’ pattern of desert truffle use can be outlined and, on this basis, truffle use as it probably existed for at least 1,500 years can be inferred. Truffles were harvested for their food and medicinal uses. Although no historical report was found in the literature that deals with Western Sahara nomads’ collection and use of desert truffles, retrospective interviews indicated that all Western Sahara tribes ate and appreciated desert truffles, and that there were years in which they were abundant and constituted an important food resource. Men, women, and children alike collected truffles, either during expeditions carried out specifically for this purpose, or while carrying out other activities such as collecting firewood or tending livestock. Contemporary nomads in the liberated territories do much the same.

Truffles are prepared for consumption by washing and cutting them into slices, and are then roasted in embers with goat or camel meat, cooked in a sauce (Fig. 5), or roasted or boiled and consumed with butter or with camel hump fat. They are highly appreciated, having a taste described as “aromatic” and “similar to meat.” Besides being consumed as a delicacy, truffles were also used as a complementary and/or emergency food in times of scarcity. The Sahrawi recalled this in terms such as, “When nothing was left, dried terfez was our bread and our meat.” For this reason, truffles were sliced, dried in the shade, and stored in a dry shady place (e.g., inside the tent) for up to one or two years. Tuareg nomads of the Hoggar Mountains make similar uses of desert truffles (Gast 2000). Today, desert truffles are harvested and consumed by Sahrawi nomads and refugees alike, especially by older refugees and former nomads for whom truffles recall “the taste of the badiya,” and, by association, their lost nomadic youth.
Fig. 5

Goat meat and a truffle and carrot sauce served with merifissa (the Sahrawi underground–baked round bread) (D. Rossi).

Truffles are also used as medicinal foods and in the preparation of medicinal and veterinary remedies. As a medicinal food, truffles are regarded as good against colds and respiratory afflictions caused by the harsh winter temperatures. Also, consumption of hot truffle soups is considered to be good for treating “bone and articular afflictions” such as rheumatism. As a medicinal remedy, the Sahrawi use truffles as a treatment for arthritis, rheumatism, and eye infections such as conjunctivitis and trachoma. To treat arthritis and rheumatism, truffles are washed, sliced, boiled, and applied topically, or a poultice obtained from mashing the boiled slices is made and kept in place with a bandage. These treatments are said to “draw the cold out of the body.” In order to prepare an eyewash to treat eye infections, which are very common in the desert environment, truffles are boiled and the resulting water is stirred and applied as eye drops, or a piece of truffle is boiled and then squeezed so that the resulting drops fall into the affected eye as eyewash. Sahrawi refugees have maintained the use of truffles for eye afflictions, and about 5 percent of the refugee tents that Volpato et al. (2007) surveyed for medicinal remedies had desert truffles in store to be used for ophthalmic problems. This medicinal use of truffles is generally well known in Islamic medicine and among Saharan nomads and Arab populations of the Middle East (Alsheikh and Trappe 1983; Mandeel and Al-Laith 2007).

In Sahrawi veterinary medicine, truffles are used to treat mastitis (inflammation of the udders) and metritis (inflammation of the wall of the uterus) in livestock. To treat metritis, truffles are boiled and mashed with onion and garlic and then applied as a poultice inside the uterus (e.g., after parturition) with oil. To treat mastitis and other external inflammations, the Sahrawi topically apply slices that had been simmered for half an hour with a bandage, or make washes with the water in which truffles have been boiled. If no water is available to boil truffles, they are mashed when raw, heated on embers, and applied as a poultice with some oil or animal fat. The treatment is repeated for at least three days, or until the inflammation recedes. For nomads, the use of desert truffles to treat mastitis is especially important in relation to camels, since camel milk is a staple food and mastitis (e.g., due to frequent milking) is one of the primary causes of decreasing milk production.

Truffle Commodification

Scholars use the term commodification to describe, among others, the process of commercialization of traditional knowledge and of plants, animals, and mushrooms formerly used for subsistence (Castree 2003; Vermeylen 2008). Below, we discuss the commodification of desert truffles among the Sahrawi using value chain analysis. The value chain for desert truffles originating in the liberated territories is presented in Fig. 6.
Fig. 6

Value Chain of Desert Truffles among the Sahrawi. Note: Exchange rate USD 1 = DZD 79.60 = 0.77 euros on October 8, 2012.

Over a period of almost 20 years, with war and sedentarization in refugee camps, Sahrawi refugees lost access to truffles, to the capital required to collect truffles, and to a truffle harvesting territory. However, over the past 15 years or so, within a wider process in which many Sahrawi refugees sought to free themselves from a condition of economic dependency, some sought to regain access to desert truffles and other traditional products of the badiya (Volpato et al. 2007), both for their use value and especially in order to earn income. Refugees required three main resources (inputs) to enable them to engage in truffle harvesting and marketing: 1) knowledge about truffles, their ecology, and how, when, and where to find them; 2) territories where truffles grow; and 3) the capital necessary for truffle harvesting (e.g., a jeep to travel to the badiya). In 1991, when the peace agreement allowed refugees to have access to at least part of their former nomadic territory (i.e., the liberated territories), these conditions began to be met. The peace agreement also brought about the demobilization of Polisario soldiers, who had meanwhile gained knowledge of the badiya after 15 years of surviving in the area as guerrilla combatants. New refugee harvesters and demobilized soldiers also gained knowledge through conversations with older refugees (e.g., relatives and acquaintances who lived as nomads before exile), who knew the badiya and its resources from their nomadic youth. The transmission of ethnoecological knowledge (e.g., how to locate truffles, when to search, where truffles have grown even with limited rains, etc.) has been particularly important to commercial truffle collectors, since it confers an advantage over improvised collectors who do not have such knowledge. For this reason, aspects of this knowledge (e.g., the location of specific truffle collecting areas) are kept secret to avoid competition.

Refugees also needed access to capital to invest in the enterprise. This became available as refugees, in the search for income–generating opportunities, engaged in productive and trade activities (e.g., mechanics’ workshops, food shops, livestock husbandry, etc.). Such opportunities were made possible by new means of access to initial capital provided through Spanish civil pensions (paid by the Spanish Government since 1992 to those Sahrawi who had worked for the Spanish colonial administration or army before 1975), through remittances from the Sahrawi diaspora (e.g., in Spain), through donations from Spanish families (e.g., under the children hosting plan known as “Holidays in Peace”, see Crivello et al. 2006, by liquidation of other assets (e.g., of a camel herd), or from the earnings of other enterprises. In order to begin commercial truffle harvesting, refugees first needed to purchase a jeep and often did buy a used jeep in Mauritania or Spain. A fourth condition required to enable truffle collection was rain, and indeed a string of rainy years from 1990–2010 produced an abundance of truffles in the liberated territories.

These four main factors allowed several refugees to initiate commercial truffle harvesting. Half of the informants in this study were commercial truffle collectors; their mean age was 26, and ranged from 16 to 51. They were all refugees (we found no nomad engaging in commercial harvesting), and four were Polisario soldiers. The latter sometimes engage in truffle harvesting during the three–to–six months that they spend as cantoned soldiers in the liberated territories. But mostly, commercial truffle collectors are young refugees with only elementary formal education (i.e., they attended primary school in the refugee camps and then abandoned their studies), but with a deeper knowledge of the badiya and a higher level of engagement with the desert in comparison with more educated refugees (e.g., those who attended university abroad). During harvesting season, refugee truffle collectors leave the refugee camps and travel to the liberated territories. The duration of harvesting journeys is usually one to two weeks, with truffle collectors trying to harvest as many truffles as possible (up to tens of kilograms) in just a few days to sell them while they are still at their peak quality. These journeys are repeated throughout the harvesting season. At the well of Bir Lehlou in January 2007, one of the authors (GV) met three young refugees who were travelling through the liberated territories with a cat in an old Land Rover. The back of the Land Rover was packed with bags full of truffles, which they were hoping to sell in Tindouf. One of them explained, “The business is very good. Every year after rains we leave the camps to harvest truffles in the badiya. This time we brought a cat with us in order to keep gerbils away from the harvested truffles at night.”

What do refugees do with the harvest? Three routes are taken by truffles collected by refugees: 1) a large majority is sold to Algerian intermediaries in Tindouf for onward sale; 2) collectors sell truffles to shop owners in the refugee camps or directly to other refugees for final consumption; and 3) collectors redistribute truffles for final consumption in the refugee camps through kin and informal networks of exchange and reciprocity. Most truffle collectors engage in all of them, consuming, redistributing, and selling truffles at the same time. In Tindouf, truffles pass into the hands of Algerian intermediaries who then sell them in town or have a network of buyers across Algeria. During favorable years, there are lively truffle markets in Tindouf as well as in other Algerian towns as far north as Algiers, and the prices commanded by Algerian intermediaries are higher than those paid by consumers in the camps. Because of this, truffles are not often found for sale in camp shops, which happens only in periods of great abundance. But even in this case, truffle collectors may store part of the harvest in containers (e.g., a fuel tank filled with sand) in order to sell at a higher price once the period of high supply is over. Thus, the Sahrawi are the primary producers in a value chain in which they work as harvesters and sellers, and are more rarely active as buyers, as they make direct use of part of the harvest. Refugees use the earnings from small–scale truffle marketing to expand truffle collection (e.g., purchasing better means of transport) or as a supplementary income used for other businesses, as well as for livelihood expenses (e.g., to buy food and other items not provided by food aid).

Refugees sell their harvest to Algerian intermediaries rather than directly to Algerian customers in Tindouf because of legal barriers to entering the Algerian economy and territory outside the refugee camp area (e.g., refugees are not allowed to travel across or to take up a paid occupation or establish productive activities in Algerian territory unless they have an Algerian identity card). The limitations to travel in Algerian territory make it a risky business for refugees to collect truffles there. At least in one case reported to us, members of the Algerian Police Force, in implementing these policies, halted refugee truffle collectors in Algerian territory and confiscated their harvest. Instead, refugees are allowed to move freely within the liberated territories where they possess unregulated usage rights as citizens of the Sahrawi republic in exile (the SADR), and as well they are informally allowed free movement to and from Mauritania. Although they have access to an extensive truffle collecting territory, refugees encounter a bottleneck in their limited ability to engage directly with Algerian and international consumers, leaving them with little alternative to selling their harvest to intermediaries in Tindouf.

This value chain is sustained by high demand for desert truffles in Algeria and abroad, which translates into the higher prices that such foreign consumers are willing to pay for these delicacies. For example, in spring 2008, Sahrawi sold truffles to Algerian traders in Tindouf at about 300–700 Algerian Dinars (DZD) per kg (about USD 3.8–8.8/kg), and these traders would then resell them to consumers in Tindouf or other Algerian towns (e.g., Béchar, Ghardaïa, Algiers) at twice the price or more (i.e., DZD 800–1500/kg). Throughout Algeria, this trade has become very lucrative in recent years due to the high demand from Algerian city dwellers (who consider truffles as an exotic food, a delicacy, or a purported aphrodisiac) and also from Europeans and Middle Eastern consumers (Ouali 2006). In 2009, a very good truffle year, this trade assumed very substantial proportions: trucks drove into Houari Boumediene Airport in Algiers every day loaded with truffles destined for the Arabian Peninsula, the Gulf States, and Syria, where prices paid were from USD 5–50/kg (Fethi 2009). Demand for desert truffles in Europe can be traced back to the growth of its North African and Middle Eastern populations. Also, part of this export may be due to attempts by some traders to sell (or blend) Tirmania nivea truffles as the far more valuable Italian white truffle (Tuber magnatum), because of their similar appearance (Rodríguez 2008). Whichever the case, the commercial harvest of Sahara truffles is well established, as indicated by the numerous websites on the Internet advertising Sahara truffles for international sale.

Social and Environmental Impact of Truffle Commodification

The high demand for desert truffles in Algerian and international markets and their high prices combine to make truffle harvesting a lucrative activity for Sahrawi refugees. However, as other studies of wild mushroom commodification demonstrate (Winkler 2008), the increasing harvesting pressure for commercial purposes might raise issues of sustainability. Although field data were not collected on the possible social and ecological impacts of commercial harvesting in the badiya, concerns arise from the increased competition among commercial Sahrawi truffle collectors (reported by collectors themselves), and between commercial truffle collectors and nomads who harvest truffles for subsistence purposes. Increasing market demand may also exacerbate inequalities, since truffle collectors with more financial resources have greater access to collection. An Algerian truffler from the region of Béchar expressed similar concerns to the Magharebia newspaper: “I learned this job from my father, who learned it from his father. We know the desert like the back of our hand. But now that the businessmen are into truffles, there’s competition. Sometimes, you have to use force to defend your territory. Sometimes, you have to sneak out at dawn to make sure no one follows” (Fethi 2009).

At least partly, harvesting dynamics may be self–compensatory in the badiya: with greater harvesting pressure, there is decreasing availability, so that fewer Sahrawi resort to truffle harvesting as a source of income. But in the presence of constant high demand and high prices, this may create the conditions for truffle harvesting to have a long–term negative impact on truffle populations. Intensive commercial truffle collection might lead to habitat disturbance (e.g., loosening of the soil and increased wind erosion, Steinmann 1998) and unsustainable harvesting. It may be especially so if truffle collectors do not follow sustainable harvesting practices, such as re–capping the ground after harvest. Increased market demand may also threaten desert truffle populations and reproduction since truffle collectors have incentives to collect and sell truffles before they are fully ripened, which may have a negative effect on spore dispersal through wind or animals, which occurs upon truffles’ maturity. This may lead to lower abundance of desert truffles that may be produced and collected in one season. One day in January 2006, near Tifariti, after very good rains the previous December, a truffle collector told us, “Everyone should wait until March, when truffles will be far bigger than now; but there is such demand and so many truffle collectors that nobody waits.” Competition among truffle collectors and high demand trigger an early harvest of unripe truffles, which consequently are smaller and less valuable. This is reinforced by the fact that truffle prices vary throughout the harvesting season: truffles can be found on sale at double the price or more at the beginning of the season (in January–February) compared with the end of the season (April–May).


This paper has given an account of the historical and contemporary use of desert truffles among Sahrawi nomads and refugees of Western Sahara. First, truffle taxonomy, ecology, and harvesting knowledge and practices were addressed, and then the food, medicinal, and veterinary uses were described. The process of truffle commodification among the Sahrawi was described and it was argued that this occurred within a wider process in which refugees strove toward economic independence, which included the commercial exploitation of desert resources formerly used for their use values. The commodification process occurred not only due to refugees’ search for an income, but also because of the high demand for desert truffles in North Africa, including Algeria and the Middle East. From this perspective, Sahrawi truffle collectors are the primary producers in a value chain that provides desert truffles as a food delicacy to a growing number of consumers.

The results of this research show that desert truffles have played important functions among Sahrawi nomads as complementary and emergency foods, as medicinal foods, and as a source of medicinal and veterinary remedies. Although these uses continue, the most relevant use of truffles at present is as a source of income. With the cash obtained from remittances or other sources, a number of Sahrawi refugees have purchased jeeps and began harvesting truffles for sale. These dynamics might lead to competition among truffle collectors and increase the likelihood of unsustainable truffle harvesting levels.

The findings from this study make several contributions to the current literature. First, they contribute to the ethnomycology of desert truffles within a geographical and cultural context not addressed by previous ethnomycological investigations. Second, they describe the local process of truffle commodification, thus providing a case study for other research and theory about human–nature relations in a globalized planet. And third, they provide insights and a case study on the means through which Sahrawi refugees and other refugees in general combine their knowledge about the local environment with access to their customary territories in order to generate income. These results support the idea that refugees are not simply passive recipients of food aid, but rather struggle to maintain and recover their ethnobiological knowledge and practices, which they use to earn an income as well as for gift giving and direct use values. By studying desert truffles and their commodification, the current findings add to a growing literature on refugees’ agency and on the ethnobiological practices of migrating and displaced people.

Our findings are subject to at least three limitations. First, a detailed taxonomy of desert truffles in Western Sahara is still lacking; only preliminary data are provided here. Second, field data were not collected on the possible social and ecological impacts of commercial harvesting in the badiya and, until further studies are conducted, these remain speculations. Third, field data were not collected on the relative contribution of truffle sales to collectors’ household income. Nonetheless, findings from this study can be used by NGOs and policymakers to develop targeted interventions aimed at supporting refugees’ agency while addressing possible social, economic, and environmental implications of commercial truffle harvesting among the Sahrawi.


We are very thankful to many Sahrawi and Sahrawi truffle collectors for the patience and kindness that they have shown during the interviews. We thank the Italian NGO Africa 70 for logistical support and cooperation. Personal thanks go to the director of the Veterinary Services of the SADR (Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic), Saleh Mohamed Lamin Saleh, and to Sidahmed Fadel. Thanks to Professor Patricia Howard for her comments and revisions to the manuscript. Funds were granted to Gabriele Volpato by Ceres Research School of Wageningen University, The Netherlands, as part of his Ph.D. research on historical and contemporary Sahrawi nomadism and ethnobiological knowledge.

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© The New York Botanical Garden 2013