To safeguard their future, environmental sustainability expert Dr Anjanette DeCarlo has immersed herself in the subject to find a solution, and is working with buyers on the ground to develop ways to make frankincense harvesting more sustainable.
Does science have the answer?
Alongside recommending sustainable harvesting practices, Dr DeCarlo is currently undertaking research that could help drive change. The road ahead could lead to a significant discovery - whether or not the quality of frankincense is affected by the way in which it is harvested.
She believes that trees in a state of distress (due to over-harvesting) could have a signature chemical compound. In more traditional harvesting practices, cutting the trees does create some small level of stress, which is how the correct chemical profile is created for frankincense. Over-harvesting, however, heightens that stress.
She said: “Too much stress, and that’s where we want to start verifying if that has a chemical profile.”
If the chemical profile does exist, it could be used to test whether the resin has been collected sustainably.
The rocky terrain in Somaliland makes testing resin in the field difficult, so lab testing is being considered as a practical solution. All the science involved is open source, encouraging others to adopt the same practice. If her theory proves correct, and well-managed Boswellia carterii produces higher quality frankincense, sustainability could become a very attractive quality to buyers.
Tree nurseries have also proven a rich source of information. By examining orchards in other countries, information has been collected and applied to reforesting trees in the wild.
The problem of over-harvesting
Boswellia carterii grow amid a rocky, mountainous terrain in Somaliland. Using traditional practices, the trees are harvested with care and well-looked after. Tapped once a year for two years and then rested for a year, they are given the time to recover and continue a healthy life.
Yet economic pressures mean that some farmers are now changing the way they harvest frankincense. Multiple wounds are being made in the trees, and they are not given a resting period. The trees cannot repair themselves, and so their immune defences are weakened and they become susceptible to pests. Ultimately, they dehydrate and become unable to produce the resin needed for frankincense. The mortality rate is high.
An even greater concern is the fertility of the trees, which decreases when they are under stress. Harvesting immature trees also prevents them from growing to a full, productive size. The impact on the tree population could be huge.
Not officially recognised as a country, Somaliland is restricted in what international mechanisms it can use. With little economic diversity in the region, frankincense is a vital source of income. Higher demand coupled with a rise in the price per kilo has led to more pressure to harvest. Over-harvesting is a short-term solution, but could be devastating in the long run.
Dr DeCarlo recently visited some extremely remote areas in Somaliland, home to some of the last Boswellia carterii forests. While she described some areas as “gorgeous, well-managed, forested zones,” many forests were suffering.
After carrying out ground analysis at ten different locations across the growing region, she reported an alarming trend of over-harvesting. She said: “If people in the region are over-relying on carterii trees, that of course leads to over-harvesting.”
As human-driven climate change sends the planet’s weather patterns spiraling in new directions, the region has also seen a change in rainfall. If the rainy seasons do not arrive, Dr DeCarlo says that harvesting may happen all year round.
In the past, the country’s government has had limited resources for promoting sustainable harvesting, with problems such as land degradation, deforestation and other environmental issues taking the main focus.
Dr DeCarlo said: “There’s no government regulation or enforcement of harvesting practices. The situation where there’s no enforcement, coupled with a higher price, can really cause over-harvesting.”
However, she said the Somaliland government is now taking a keen interest in the issue, and the Minister of Environment has even visited the area.
Working with communities
Influencing the government plays an important role in driving change, but so too does raising awareness within those communities who are harvesting Boswellia carterii, and who are directly impacted by its survival.
Dr DeCarlo said: “Right now, there is an incentive to overharvest, because the more you bring in, the more money you make. Over time, people will start to see the impact of that.”
She is now developing incentives for farmers to harvest sustainably. An important part of this is looking at the price per kilo that farmers are paid. Something at the root of the problem however, is the lack of economic diversity in the region. Eco-tourism, other biological resources and cultivation are all possible avenues that could be explored to diversify income.
The communities have been receptive to her work, and have welcomed her help in maintaining their economic and cultural sustainability. The younger harvesters in particular are willing to ask for help, and she was met at first with questions of: “Doc, what do we do?”
Dr DeCarlo is adamant that “the harvesters and the landowners are not the enemy.” She wants to be clear that she does not want the harvesting of frankincense to be banned, but wants to encourage best practice of rotational management, where trees are rested for a year after two years of harvesting. She will soon be releasing guidelines to help put this into action.
Buying into sustainability
According to the sustainability expert, the key to saving Boswellia carterii is to find international buyers that care about the problem. She wants companies to be accountable for their use of frankincense, and to work with communities to ensure sustainability.
She said: “We have to have an attitude change amongst everyone on the supply chain.”
This spring, the verification process will have its first trials. Two or three locations, some sustainably managed and some not, will take part in the pilot for what could be a major step in securing the future of the Frankincense forests.
Images by kind permission of Conserve the Cal Madow.