Last wild frank­in­cense forests un­der threat

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

In a tra­di­tion dat­ing to Bi­b­li­cal times, men rise at dawn in the rugged Cal Madow moun­tains of So­ma­liland in the Horn of Africa to scale rocky out­crops in search of the prized sap of wild frank­in­cense trees. Brac­ing against high winds, Musse Ismail Has­san climbs with his feet wrapped in cloth to pro­tect against the sticky resin. With a metal scraper, he chips off bark and the tree’s white sap bleeds into the salty air. “My fa­ther and grand­fa­ther were both do­ing this job,” said Has­san, who like all around here is Mus­lim. “We heard that it was with Je­sus” (PBUH).

When dried and burned, the sap pro­duces a fra­grant smoke which per­fumes churches and mosques around the world. Frank­in­cense, along with gold and myrrh, was brought by the Three Kings as gifts in the Gospel ac­count of the birth of Je­sus (PBUH). But now these last in­tact wild frank­in­cense forests on Earth are un­der threat as prices have shot up in re­cent years with the global ap­petite for es­sen­tial oils. Over­har­vest­ing has led to the trees dy­ing off faster than they can re­plen­ish, putting the an­cient resin trade at risk.

“(Frank­in­cense) is some­thing that is lit­er­ally given by God to hu­man­ity, so if we don’t pre­serve it, if we don’t take care of it, if we don’t look af­ter it, we will lose that,” said Shukri Ismail, So­ma­liland’s min­is­ter of en­vi­ron­ment and ru­ral de­vel­op­ment. The Cal Madow moun­tains, which rise from the Gulf of Aden in sheer cliff faces reach­ing over 8,000 feet (2,440 m), are part of So­ma­liland, an au­ton­o­mous repub­lic in So­ma­lia’s north­west. The frank­in­cense trade is So­ma­liland’s largest source of govern­ment rev­enue af­ter live­stock and live­stock prod­ucts, Ismail said.

Har­vest­ing frank­in­cense is risky. The trees can grow high on cliff edges, shal­low roots grip­ping bare rock slith­er­ing with ven­omous snakes. Har­vesters of­ten slip and tum­ble down canyon walls. “Ev­ery year peo­ple ei­ther break both legs or die. Those ca­su­al­ties are so of­ten,” said Has­san, adding that he wished he had proper ropes and climb­ing gear. “It’s a very dan­ger­ous job, but we don’t have any al­ter­na­tive.” Once the resin is col­lected, women sort the chunks by color and size. The var­i­ous classes of resin are shipped to Ye­men, Saudi Ara­bia and even­tu­ally Europe and Amer­ica. Be­sides its use as in­cense, frank­in­cense gum is dis­tilled into oil for use in per­fumes, skin lo­tions, medicine and chew­ing gum.

In the last six years, prices for raw frank­in­cense have shot up from around $1 per kilo­gram to $5 to $7, said An­janette DeCarlo, an ecol­o­gist and di­rec­tor of Con­serve Cal Madow, an en­vi­ron­men­tal group. The rise in de­mand is the re­sult of stronger mar­ket­ing in the es­sen­tial oils in­dus­try, which la­bels frank­in­cense as the “King of Es­sen­tial Oils,” DeCarlo said. The dwin­dling sup­ply of high-qual­ity resin, and com­pe­ti­tion be­tween ex­porters, also are fac­tors.

Now over-tap­ping is de­stroy­ing the trees across the Cal Madow, as tap­pers try to ex­tract as much sap as pos­si­ble and make too many cuts per tree. They also tap the trees year-round rather than sea­son­ally, pre­vent­ing the trees from re­cov­er­ing. “The death rate of the adult trees is alarm­ing,” DeCarlo said. “There is po­ten­tial for re­gen­er­a­tion, but it takes about 40 years or so for these trees to be­come vi­able for tap­ping if it’s done right.”

Of­fi­cials worry the an­cient trade could dis­ap­pear. “Frank­in­cense that the pharaohs were us­ing came from here, so you could imag­ine it has a his­tory, it has a rich his­tory,” Ismail said. “I’m afraid that we will lose that rich his­tory.” — AP

In this Aug 6, 2016 photo, a man holds up two large tears of maydi, the large, most ex­pen­sive chunks of frank­in­cense resin, in Bu­rao, So­ma­liland, a break­away re­gion of So­ma­lia. — AP

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