Losing the Traditions of Religiously Indispensable Frankincense

A drop of frankincense juice hangs on the bark of a Boswellia tree. After being harvested and crystallized, it becomes an aromatic resin that burns wonderfully as frankincense.

Somalilandsun: Frankincense is widely used by most major religions for diverse purposes.

This globally popular gum resin has been extracted from trees in Somaliland and the surrounding countries for centuries.

During the Christian festival of Ephiphany Frankincense is indispensable during the festivities which is observed on January 6 by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Christians of other Western traditions. Eastern traditions that follow the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar celebrate Epiphany on January 19, since their Christmas Eve falls on January 6.

In a story titled Tradition in danger: why the high demand for incense is not a blessing German language https://www.berliner-zeitung.de Reports

For the birth of Jesus the three wise men traveled from the Orient to Bethlehem. There they presented three valuable gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Almost every child in Christian countries knows this story. Today, the familiar smell of frankincense not only permeates churches, it is also a popular oil in aromatherapy.

As a result, incense is currently experiencing an unprecedented boom worldwide – but in countries like Somaliland, one of the largest producers, this is not all positive. Researchers warn: in a few decades this valuable commodity, which has been anchored in our societies for centuries from the ancient Egyptians to modern medicine, may no longer exist.

Frankincense is obtained from Boswellia trees. In addition to Somalia, the different species of the tree can also be found in Ethiopia, Sudan, Oman, Yemen and India. “You have to cut the tree with an ax and then give it time until Beeyo appears,” explains Somali Ardo Mire, using the local term for incense. The 55-year-old family has been harvesting the resin from which frankincense is made in central Somalia for over 100 years. But how long she can continue the family tradition, she doesn’t know: “These days Beeyo is getting less and less, because the trees are dying and the demand is too high.”

A Boswellia tree of the species Sacra, taken in Somaliland. By cutting the bark, the gum resin frankincense, which has been popular for centuries, is obtained.Photo: dpa / Anjanette DeCarlo

Frankincense has experienced a revival in the USA and Europe in recent years. In addition to smoking, it is particularly popular in essential oils in aromatherapy and in soaps. “There is insatiable demand,” says Frans Bongers from the University of Wageningen (Netherlands), who researches Boswellia trees. This is increasingly affecting Somalia, especially the semi-autonomous region of Somaliland. The species Boswellia sacra, also known as Boswellia carteri, to be found there, is currently a hot commodity on the market, says expert Anjanette DeCarlo, who works with her organization Save Frankincense to protect trees.

You might think that the increasing demand is a blessing, but the reality is different. Previously nomadic peoples tapping the trees increasingly settled, DeCarlo explains. Coupled with population growth, the pressure on trees is increasing, even in increasingly remote areas. “We see that more and more people are tapping into the trees because the price (of incense) has risen.” And because of the weak governance in Somaliland, the business is little controlled.

The so-called over-tapping is devastating for the trees. To extract gum resin, incisions are made in the bark of the tree. The tree gives off resin like a body bleeds from a wound; this resin is collected. For this method to be sustainable and the tree to stay healthy, a tree should only get nine to twelve cuts, as DeCarlo explains. In addition, a tree should only be pruned a few months a year and only two years in a row, then it should recover for around a year. DeCarlo, however, often sees trees that have over 100 cuts and that are not given a break.

This pressure on the trees, coupled with the consequences of climate change, is a “perfect storm that leads to the depletion of a resource,” says DeCarlo. The International Union for Conservation of Nature IUCN classified the population of Boswellia sacra as low endangered in 1998, but no assessment has been carried out since then.

Ahmed Diri Elmi, forester and member of the team at Save Frankincense, an organization that works to protect Boswellia trees, measures the circumference of a Boswellia tree of the Sacra species. Photo: dpa / Anjanette DeCarlo

The trees are also threatened in other countries, but for different reasons. In Ethiopia, also one of the largest incense producers in the world, the Boswellia papyrifera fall victim to agriculture and livestock, as researcher Bongers says. The conflict that is currently raging in the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia is also affecting the trees. In some tree populations, there has been no natural regeneration for decades, wrote Bongers in a study last year. “The expected incense production will be halved in 20 years.”

The incense boom does little to help the people who harvest the resin out of poverty. The trees are often in hard-to-reach and conflict-ridden areas, and the work is hard. A collector earns the least in the chain. Depending on the year and place, he could sell a kilo of resin in the village for around three to six dollars, says researcher Stephen Johnson, who is committed to sustainable supply chains. Middle men earned about double that. Distilled as an essential oil, a kilo costs around 14 to 22 dollars – and packed in small bottles the kilo comes to a massive 104 to 430 dollars.

But the researchers agree: Stopping incense is not the solution – instead, production must be sustainable. On the one hand, the extraction of wild resin must be regulated more tightly, says DeCarlo. Even today, some manufacturers are making increased efforts to examine the supply chains more closely and to buy sustainable incense. On the other hand, the high demand could be satisfied and the pressure on the wild Boswellia trees could be cushioned by plantations. A few already exist, but the trees take many years to grow. And people have to benefit more from the incense boom: Instead of just exporting the raw resin, the manufacture of incense products should increasingly be located locally, says DeCarlo. (dpa)

Translated by www.somalilandsun.com from the original publication titled Tradition in Gefahr: Warum die hohe Nachfrage nach Weihrauch kein Segen ist