Reviving gum and resin production key to livelihoods and conservation in Ethiopia’s dry forests

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (17 November, 2011) _ A revival in the production of gums and resins such as frankincense and myrrh could help conserve forests and boost livelihoods in Ethiopia’s impoverished drylands, according to a new study published by the Center for International Forestry Research.
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An Ethiopian farmer. Photo courtesy of ILRI/Stevie Mann

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (17 November, 2011)_A revival in the production of gums and resins such as frankincense and myrrh could help conserve forests and boost livelihoods in Ethiopia’s impoverished drylands, according to a new study published by the Center for International Forestry Research.

Such gums and resins come from trees that are adapted to extremely dry climates, and would provide a sustainable forest-based industry in areas where worsening droughts, population growth and over-harvesting of timber are driving land degradation and desertification.

“Forest products such as gums and resins are important sources of cash income. They are the most important export commodities from the forestry sector,” said Habtemariam Kassa, co-author of the study “Opportunities and challenges for sustainable production and marketing of gums and resins in Ethiopia.”

Dry forests are the largest vegetation resources in Ethiopia, where more than half of the landmass – some 560,000 to 615,000 square km – is arid or semi-arid.

While home to only 12 to 15 percent of the country’s 80 million people, the drylands have a growing population, due in part to government resettlement programs to assist vulnerable households in the degraded highlands.

While drylands residents were once nomadic livestock farmers, with population growth, urban centers have mushroomed, and as a result, overgrazing and deforestation for construction, energy and household income supplement.

Compounding the problem, climate change and erratic rainfall are making agricultural production virtually impossible and driving desertification across Ethiopia’s drylands.

In recent years, many dryland communities suffer increasingly from poverty and food insecurity, and food aid has become common.

While there is a misconception that there is a paucity of resources in the drylands, Kassa suggests that the population need only turn to dry forest trees – such as Acacia, Commiphora, Boswellia and Sterculia – which yield gums and resins that Ethiopians have collected, used and traded since antiquity.

Thus far, however, gum and resin trees have been neglected because policy makers and researchers know little about the potential of these resources. Strategies focus solely on agricultural expansion, but there is no clearly defined policy on dryland development.

“It is only recently that research on these forests, trees and products began. Thus policy options and technical/managerial recommendations how best to manage dry forests to sustainably produce gums and resins are difficult to come by,” Kassa said.

He stressed a need to support more research and to inform decision makers about balancing conservation and development in dry forest areas.

Sustainable production of gums and resins can help fight desertification and promote biodiversity and conservation, while also providing an income and offering a source of food for livestock, as well as humans during periods of famine.

Furthermore, he writes, global demand for these products – the best known of which include gum arabic, frankincense, myrrh, opoponax and gum karaya – is growing, so improved access to the global market could encourage farmers to sustainably manage dry forests.

Ethiopia’s exports have increased in recent years from 1,648 tonnes in 1999-2000 to more than 5,000 in 2009-10, he said.

“But still, the production level remains much lower than its estimated potential. This indicates that Ethiopia has not yet managed to benefit fully from this resource, due to a range of production, marketing and institutional shortcomings.”

Attempts to raise seedlings to produce gums and resins at the farm level have not started. While there have been attempts by some companies, survival rates have been extremely low.

“The species have not yet been domesticated, and production at own farm level is almost non-existent. To produce marketable volumes you need more trees.”

“Opportunities and challenges for sustainable production and marketing of gums and resins in Ethiopia” is part of CIFOR’s ongoing research, supported by the Austrian Development Agency, to expand knowledge about conservation and development in dry forest areas and to better inform national and regional partners.

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