Frankincense and Myrrh harvest may encourage sustainable livelihoods in Ethiopia

Photo courtesy of Janne Moren/flickr

BOGOR, Indonesia (6 September, 2011)_ The sustainable production and marketing of oleo-gum resins such as frankincense and myrrh could provide both valuable income options for poverty stricken Ethiopian communities and opportunities for enhancing carbon sequestration, says a new CIFOR study.

Yet, according to the study, a lack of awareness about the potential of these forest resources, a lack of information for policy makers to create clearly defined policies on the development of drylands, and a lack of understanding in agricultural development strategies means that people in the drylands of Ethiopia continue to live in poverty while this valuable vegetation is destroyed.

“There is a lack of knowledge to guide practice and policy [of oleo-gum resin production], despite centuries of trade. There are also very few practical recommendations for managing competing land uses and making decisions at the landscape-level to maximise economic and ecological gains,” says CIFOR scientist Habtemariam Kassa, lead author of the study being undertaken by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), financed by Swedish Sida and the Austrian Development Agency.

Ethiopia’s arid and semi-arid drylands are home to some of the country’s poorest people. The agro-pastoralist communities that make a living there are facing increasing pressures from rising human and livestock populations, shrinking grazing lands and frequent droughts.

Harvesting and overharvesting forest products to survive, these communities are unintentionally driving land degradation and desertification. The likely effect of climate change on such resource-reliant people is dishearteningly predictable.

But contrary to a general perception that drylands are resource-poor areas, the forests and woodlands there could offer a solution. Dry forests are important contributors to human welfare and environmental health. They provide diverse goods and services such as browsing fodder, fuel, cash income, building materials and herbal medicines. They protect the soil from erosion, restore soil fertility and hold back desertification. Most importantly, several species yield commercial plant gums and resins that have been traded since antiquity.

Oleo-gum resins pervade modern-day life: they are in our paper, ceramics and cosmetics; in our icecream and beer; in our toothpaste, tablets and cough drops. They can treat a host of illnesses, including cancer and just 175 grams can provide 24 hours of nourishment.

In the 2010-11 Ethiopian financial year, the country earned over 12 million USD from exported gums and resins. As a result there is a growing national interest in intensifying their production. While producers are currently not the major beneficiaries of these export earnings, an increase in returns from oleo-gum resins would be a powerful incentive for both governments and communities to improve how they manage dry forests.

“Managing dry forests is a great option for fighting poverty because the production of gums and resins can be integrated with other income streams, such as from livestock husbandry, to diversify livelihood options and increase household income. It offers one of the few opportunities available for dryland communities to supplement their cash incomes, so its role in food security is tremendous,” said Kassa.

Kassa and his team have been conducting research and capacity building activities in Ethiopia to improve knowledge about dry forests and their management. Non-timber forest products research has now become a major program in the national forestry research system and a new Masters of Science training program in the management of forests in dryland areas has been established.

“We are committed to promoting the multiple possibilities of conserving and improving forests for gum and resin production to the government and private sectors, who could be involved in establishing plantations and managing currently forested areas, and who could give local communities incentives and training to responsibly use the resources for the long-term,” said Kassa.

Adding to its importance, recent assessments have shown that over 90 percent of carbon sequestrated in trees and shrubs in Ethiopia is found in the dryland areas- the regions in which gum and resin-producing trees naturally occur. When properly practiced, gum and resin collection is non-destructive. This means the vegetation can provide constant ground cover, thus reducing soil erosion, contributing to biodiversity conservation, improving soil fertility and controlling desertification.

The presence of economically important vegetation in these drylands may push climate change mitigation, with enhanced carbon sequestration activities providing considerable carbon financial incentives under REDD+ (reducing emission from deforestation and degradation) schemes, said Kassa.

“By managing dryland vegetation resources for sustainable economic benefits, their ecological services [such as under REDD+] can also be realized.”

Recognition of how gums and resins contribute to local livelihoods and the national economy is growing. Governments and development agencies in Ethiopia are beginning to explore ways to improve dry forests and woodland management and to integrate gum and resin production into wider livelihood strategies.

It is clear that the country’s natural gums subsector offers viable development options with truly win-win outcomes for economic development, sustainable livelihoods and ecosystem conservation.


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