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Environment

The disappearing frankincense forests

Even before the Wise Men gave frankincense as a gift, people were climbing the rugged Somaliland mountains in search of the precious resin. But rising global demand is threatening the ancestral forests where it is found.

Gold, frankincense and myrrh - the gifts offered to baby Jesus by the three wise men, so goes the story of the nativity, according to the Bible. Even today, frankincense remains a precious Christmastime gift - but the reality behind its harvest differs somewhat. 

The rocky Cal Madow mountains of Somaliland, a self-declared autonomous republic in Somalia's northwest, are one of the few homes internationally to wild frankincense trees. One of the species located in the area is endemic and cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Harvesting these trees is the second main livelihood for local people in Somaliland, who risk their lives to meet the global demand. However, interest in the natural product is rising at such a rate that trees cannot regenerate fast enough.

While once inherently related to the holy paradise, frankincense might end up representing a real hell for local people in Somaliland.

"It will be a disaster not only for the people of Somaliland, but for the whole world,” Ahmed Ibrahim Awale, president of the Somaliland Biodiversity Foundation, told DW. "It will be the end of unique species and of a millenarian heritage."

Increasing global appetite

Frankincense is still very much used in religious ceremonies, but it is no longer only reserved for honoring deities. Multimillionaire markets such as the French perfume business count the tree fragrance among their top components.

While local people in Somaliland have harvested frankincense for millenniums, the current rhythm to meet the global appetite for essential oils leaves few options for sustainability - and these ancestral forests cannot replenish fast enough to survive the current overharvesting.

"Frankincense has been harvested in a sustainable manner for millions of years,” Awale said. "But the rise in the global demand has completely changed it."

Harvesting in an unsustainable way means making a higher number of cuts per tree to extract as much sap as possible and tapping the trees year-round rather than seasonally. These practices weaken the trees, impede them from recovering and, ultimately, means they end up dying.

Frankincense tree in Somaliland (picture-alliance/AP Photo/hotabe)

It takes around three months for the frankincense sap to dry and harden

A deadly fragrance

In the last six years, the price per kilogram of raw frankincense has shot up from one to around 6 US-dollars, Awale explained.

With Somaliland suffering one of the worst droughts across the Horn of Africa region and with a rate of rural poverty of around 40 percent, it isn't hard to imagine why local people keep jeopardizing their forests and their lives.

Musse Ismail Hassan is one of the frankincense collectors - like his father and grandfather - that climb up to the cliffs in search of the treasure.

"Every year people either break both legs or die. Those casualties are so often," Hassan told AP. "It's a very dangerous job, but we don't have any alternative."

But while this might work for local people in the short-term, it could be disastrous in the coming years, Awale said.  

Ismail Hassan, frankincense harvester in Somaliland (picture-alliance/AP Photo/hotabe)

Hassan has followed his family tradition despite the risks of harvesting frankincense

Means of sustainability

To avoid a point of no return, Awale said the first main goal is to raise awareness among the affected communities. With this aim environmental groups are working together with governmental agents and local communities, not only to inform but also to find much-needed solutions.

"The communities understand the gravity of the situation, but it is very complicated to find solutions due mainly to economic problems," Awale stated.

Each local community should be able to impose their own regulations and decide on their own means of sustainability, said Awale. But for this, they need support, he added. "We encourage our government and development agencies to intervene in the area and help those communities finding a sustainable way of livelihood."

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