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Farmers, policymakers get how-to guide on frankincense production

"Frankincense has great potential to be sustainably produced, because trees need to be kept standing."
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Africa - ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (8 August, 2012)_New guidelines for farmers and policymakers working with the high-value aromatic resin, frankincense, come with a warning: While expanding production can help alleviate rural poverty and save forests in east Africa, failure to adopt sustainable dry forest management practices could have the opposite effect.

The demand for frankincense, used to make everything from exportable perfume and lotion to fancy soaps, is rising.  Unless supported with responsible forest management, increasing production to meet growing demands will likely lead to forest degradation, soil erosion and the clearing of land to make way for new plantations, said Habtemariam Kassa, co-author of the Center for International Forestry Research’s how-to report.

“We need to make sure that the forests are managed and the product collected and processed carefully,” he said.

Frankincense — worth its weight in gold during Roman times — today is the main forest commodity in Ethiopia and also flourishes in other parts of the arid region.

Produced from sap from the torn open wounds of bark in living Boswellia papyrifera trees, it has great potential to be produced sustainably because trees need to be kept standing.

The ecological benefits of these trees include helping reduce soil erosion, controlling desertification, contributing to biodiversity conservation, and abating climate change by sequestering carbon, said Kassa.

Frankincense trees can grow in the strangest of places. Alexandre Baron.

Because frankincense, produced for thousands of years, has many high-value applications, including use in liqueurs and flavourings, even small-scale harvests can significantly boost incomes for some of Ethiopia’s poorest people provided that farm gate prices can be significantly increased, he said.

That will become especially important as rural communities grapple with rising temperatures, reduced rainfall and other climatic impacts. During times of food shortages, for instance, money generated from the aromatic, hard resin can be used to buy food items, contributing to meeting household food demands.

Frankincense has great potential to be sustainably produced, because trees need to be kept standing.

But much work lies ahead, he and co-author, Mulugeta Lemenih, wrote.

“Our limited knowledge on the biology and conservation options of this species continue to undermine efforts to domesticate the tree and produce frankincense from planted forests.”

The authors detail ways to propagate the species from a variety of different types of seedlings, including wildings, cuttings, root suckers and seeds grown in nurseries.  They caution, as well, against excessive tapping of individual trees.

“These forests need to be managed in a responsible way, as they play an important role in combating the advancement of desertification and moderating rainfall regimes both in the lowlands and in the highlands of east Africa,” Kassa said.

“The challenge is therefore how to manage the rapid land use changes that are taking place in Ethiopia due to agricultural expansion in such a way that conservation objectives are also met at a larger landscape scale. Carefully managing the remaining natural forests will also be critically important.”

Production of oleo-gum resins like frankincense — which also include myrrh and gum arabic — is already increasing.

Frankincense burners. Mike Rosenberg.

In the 2010-11 Ethiopian financial year, the country earned over $12 million from exported gums and resins, and its exports have increased in recent years from 1,648 metric tonnes in 1999-2000 to more than 5,000 metric tonnes in 2009-10. Kassa and his fellow researchers describe the potential for these in a related CIFOR report.

But one of the key issues with production and marketing of the resin continues to be the need for quality control of the finished product and properly governing and supporting the marketing chain.

In a scientific paper in the Journal of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Research, Kassa reports that the current price and quality grading systems are inaccurate.

“Our research shows that the current grading systems do not correspond with essential oil contents; by changing the grades of frankincense for export the revenue will be significantly increased.”

“This will constitute a huge opportunity for the country to revise its price and may ultimately increase the price margin that producers get. Better economic gains at producer and at national level from frankincense will constitute an additional economic incentive to sustainably manage the dry forests of Ethiopia.”

The manual has now been translated into the local language of Amharic and Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture is planning to distribute to local regions so that it will be employed by workers involved in the production and marketing of frankincense.

This new publication is part of CIFOR’s reserach project: “Supporting Community Forestry to Improve Livelihoods and to Facilitate Sustainable Management of Dry Forests in Ethiopia”. The project is funded by the Austrian Development Agency.

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