Is the production of frankincense in Somalia under threat?

Agriculture
Typography

Frankincense production is under threat in neighbouring Ethiopia and could be wiped out within 50 years if the trend is not reversed, according to a research paper published in Dec 2011, titled

“Limitations to sustainable frankincense production: blocked regeneration, high adult mortality and declining populations”

Is the fate of frankincense any different in Somalia?

The question that begs to be answered is this: Is the fate of frankincense any different in Somalia? For a more informed answer, an in-depth study needs to be done before any credible conclusions can be made. However, there are indications that the fragile frankincense ecosystem maybe in disequilibrium in parts of Somalia due to - among other factors - unsustainable human interventions.

Tapping practices have historically withstood the test of time over millennia. It is documented that over 5,000 years ago, the ancient Pharaohs used to source – among other products - their frankincense and myrrh supplies from the Land of Punt which is present-day Somalia.

In our times, with forward-thinking strategies and the promotion of the time-proven ‘wisdom’ embedded in the indigenous knowledge, frankincense utilization can be sustained for posterity in Somalia.

But before we delve into the topic any further, let me give you a brief contemporary historical background on the frankincense production in Somalia. Prior to the collapse of the central Somalia government in 1991, frankincense trade was government-controlled. The state actively supported the production and exportation of the commodity by providing financial incentives and regulating the market prices. Extreme care was taken to perpetuate the production capacity of the trees through the promotion of ‘good practices’ in tree tapping and husbandry.

In those bygone days, the ‘tears’ harvested almost contained no bark. Double tapping within the same calendar year - a livelihood coping strategy widely accepted today - was anathema. Young trees were exempt from exploitation till they became mature enough to withstand tapping. Those in violation were severely punished with their harvest confiscated and, at times, even imprisoned.

The collapse of the central authority left behind a void in frankincense trade since private networks had already been destroyed with the state-sponsored trade monopoly. It propelled a breakdown in legislative and traditional controls governing use and access to natural resources especially during the last decade. With the lack of a regulatory body safeguarding the ‘wellbeing’ of the trees and with poverty raising its ugly head due to the national economy suffering from neglect and the legacy of previous regional conflicts, a negative domino effect has been set in motion.

To make ends meet, the nomadic pastoralists who make a living off the frankincense trees resort to desperate coping strategies spurred on by the vicious poverty cycle. Over-tapping and double tapping have become the norm. Even worse, the tree trunk is scraped deep to force the tree to ‘bleed’ more sap. This imprudent practice unceremoniously injures the tender phloem underneath the bark. The tree gets into a state of ‘shock’ in an attempt to recover with its ability to produce sap getting severely hampered in the following years.

Trees are heavily debarked in another imprudent bid to increase the harvest weight putting the trees at risk of yield loss in the following seasons and eventual premature death. Some fueled by greed even go further by ‘logging’ gum-bearing trees leaving behind a trail of destruction with irreparable implications for the whole watershed.

Another negative effect of the breakdown in authority has been institutional in the complete collapse of the banking system, and with it the loss of the issuance of contractual Letters of Credit. This double whammy has had a devastating effect on the frankincense trade. With the loss of secure markets, traders have improvised by exporting without binding contractual agreements. The Middle East has become an important trans-shipment hub instead of the traditional direct markets in Europe and China. Some Somali frankincense traders do not help their case by flooding the market with variable quality gums and resins in a desperate self-defeating attempt to sell their products. This creates a glut in the markets and further suppresses prices.

What can be done?

The Laissez-faire policy of minimal interference and leaving it all to the traditional grove owners and traders to ‘regulate’ themselves needs to be revamped. The Somali government should regulate woodland resource management by introducing legislation on conservation governance. Even though the Ministry of Environment has taken a leading role in getting more engaged in an attempt to reverse the trend, by banning the illegal trade of aromatic products, more needs to be done. The ministry’s good efforts are hampered by weak enforcement capacity at the field level, due to a lack of qualified human and budgetary resources, weak technical capacity, and a lack of experience in managing the natural resources.

My sources who hail from the frankincense-producing areas have informed me that there is a significant decrease in the ‘unlawful’ trade in bark products in 2014. This success ought to be sustained and built upon through legislation, enforcement, institutional capacity-building and income diversification.

How can the outside world help?

Corporate stakeholders can also have a positive stamp on the sustainable management approach throughout the value chain by advancing the social and economic wellbeing of the upstream communities.

These may include the following:

  • Establish a collaborative approach for engaging ‘the right partners’ with upstream stakeholders to prioritise sustainability challenges.
  • Share Lessons Learned in ‘Best Practices’ in other countries for sustaining resource utilization under the banner of ‘making progress together’.
  • Demand transparency in product sourcing and fair trading.
  • Trade directly with the source. This will result in upstream stakeholders (especially gum collectors) getting fair prices.

Conclusion

For the semi-nomadic people living off the land, the harvesting of frankincense has historically proven to be a viable livelihood. Sustainable practices upheld in the age-old indigenous knowledge ensure that resource usage is sustained provided reckless human interventions are discouraged. Biodiversity concerns should be mainstreamed and integrated into sectoral polices ensuring that environmental issues are actually addressed and enforced. Indigenous knowledge for tree husbandry and tapping should be re-entrenched. Diversification strategies for generating alternative livelihood incomes are strongly recommended to thwart the negative effects of the poverty cycle.

What bodes well in Somalia is that frankincense groves are actually family-owned in contrast to Ethiopia where they are publicly-owned. The mere fact of ‘private ownership’ is an incentive as it is a reliable source of income for the ‘landlord’ household unit. Any threat on the trees is perceived as a livelihood risk on the survival of the family and is strongly resisted.


Mohamed Hussein H. Ali - Chairman / CEO Luban Aromatics

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