Can Frankincense, Myrrh Save African Woodlands?
A frankincense tree. Credit: Corbis
The arid woodlands of Ethiopia that
produce frankincense and myrrh are being gradually cut and replaced
with croplands, even though the ancient aromatic resins are more
reliably profitable, report Ethiopian researchers.
In the northern Amhara region of
Ethiopia the dry woodlands are rich in Boswellia and
Commiphora trees, the dried sap, or resins from which are
called frankincense and myrrh.
Whether for incense, perfumes or other
uses, these resins have been traded for about 5,000 years and are a
growing export product for the Ethiopia.
"Nonetheless, deforestation of dry
forests persists and this is because farmers are not supported by
market development," explain Mulugeta Lemenih and coauthors, of the
Forest Research Center and International Water Management Institute
in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as well as Wageningen University in the
In other words, the local farmers, most
of whom are not originally from the Amhara region, have no interest
in or incentives for frankincense and myrrh production.
for the lack of involvement of farmers in the frankincense business
are many," the researchers said. They include lack of awareness and
experience in the business, restrictive policies, the hard work
involved in tapping trees for resin and access to frankincense and
"In fact, the Amhara regional policy prohibits
individual farmers from producing and selling frankincense, unless
they are organized into cooperatives."
The Ethiopian researchers did a
detailed analysis of the costs and revenue of the tree resins and
other non-timber forest products (like honey, firewood and grazing)
and compared it to the value of nearby crops of sesame and cotton.
They found that while farmers can make a living with the crops, the
forest products are actually more reliably profitable, year after
year. Their study is being published in the February, 2013, issue of the
Journal of Arid Environments.
The economic approach taken by the
researchers could, however, backfire if their ultimate aim is to
preserve and restore the arid woodlands, explains ecologist Truman
Young of the University of California at Davis. Young has done range
land restoration research in Kenya.
"…This sort of analysis will only
exacerbate the problem, by perpetuating the myth that the 'purpose'
of the natural world is the fulfill the 'needs' of people," wrote
via email. "In Kenya, thousands of farmers
were moved off of government land (once and future forest) in the
last few years. Coming up with greater incentives not to
do this sort of thing is counter-productive."