The future of frankincense: a resin at risk

The future of frankincense: a resin at risk

By Lydia Messling

The nativity story tells us that when the Magi, distant travellers from ‘the east’, visited baby Jesus “they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrhh” – but could they do that today?

Frankincense has been used for millennia for a whole caravan of purposes – from improving arthritis, and as a pain-killer, through to aromatherapy, and cleansing body cavities in mummification. But here have been marked declines in the tree populations that produce frankincense across Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula, and now researchers have found that there is evidence of collapse of Bozwellia papyrifera – the current major frankincense producer – over all its geographic distribution, threatening the global supply.

The B. papyrifera is actually an incredible plant that has inbuilt resilience mechanisms that make it quite hardy. Before actually becoming a tree, the plant spends a lot of energy in developing deep water-seeking roots. The above-ground parts die back each season meaning that the plant is well adapted to accidental fire or being eaten by animals (known as browsing). However, this costs the tree precious soluble carbohydrates and adds mortality risk if they are over-browsed or if multiple fires occur.[1] By monitoring 21,786 trees over 23 populations, researchers found that the yield of frankincense is likely to decrease by more than 50% in the next 20 years.[2] The age of the trees also showed a large regeneration gap meaning that populations are not replacing themselves. So what’s changed?

The main change has been in the over-exploitation of the resource – from over-tapping to burning and chopping many trees down for cattle grazing and browsing. Climate change is likely to speed up the decline too, and environmental effects including droughts and strong winds have already led to the rapid decline of other frankincense yielding plants. The lack of favourable climatic conditions has shown to be a cause of regeneration failure of woody plants, however the most plausible explanation in this case is likely due to intensified cattle grazing, higher burning frequency, and unsustainable tapping practices. Whilst the Bozwellia genus is quite resilient to climate change, the environment around it is not. Other plants that cattle would usually graze on have suffered, meaning that the Bozwellia trees are the next available option. Similarly, with crop failure and other pressures on incomes, locals are tapping trees more heavily in order to trade it and earn money. Ironically, to counteract yield declines, tapping intensity needs to be reduced and even introduce tapping-rest years for the plant.

However, the demand for frankincense may also be the solution. By changing how frankincense is valued, we can change how it is harvested. For example, by valuing the resin on it’s quality, not it’s quantity, the incentive will be to tap in a more sustainable way as rested trees tapped sustainably create higher-quality resin. At the moment, the market still does not operate in this way, and is largely dependent on consumer demand for sustainably sourced products. Whilst this demand change might be driven by international businesses involved in care products and essential oils, there is also a tension to be managed with local communities’ domestic, cultural and religious ceremony uses. As such, demand management is not enough, and other efforts in regional governance of tree populations needs to be taken. In doing so, governments can help the climate resilient tree provide security to communities, and make them more resilient to climate change.

[1] Muys, B., (2019) Frankincense facing extinction, Nature Sustainability, 2, p665-666.
[2] Bongers, F., et al. (2019) Frankincense in Peril, Nature Sustainability, 2, p602-610.

Cover photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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