Reviving frankincense and myrrh for livelihoods and conservation in Ethiopia
A revival in the production of gums and resins such as frankincense and myrrh could help conserve forests and boost incomes in Ethiopia's impoverished drylands.
Dry forests provide fodder, fuel, medicines, building materials and income. They also restore soil fertility and prevent erosion and desertification. The key to conserving these forests, say CIFOR scientists, is understanding the value of species that yield gums and resins that have been collected, used and traded since antiquity.
Oleo-gum resins are used in paper, ceramics, cosmetics, ice cream, beer, toothpaste and cough drops. Global demand for products like gum arabic, frankincense, myrrh, opoponax and gum karaya is growing, with Ethiopia’s exports increasing from 1,648 tonnes in 1999–2000 to more than 5,000 tonnes in 2009–2010.
"Once farmers, the public and the private sector understand that there are major economic incentives for managing the forests properly, it is likely to lead to better conservation and livelihood outcomes, better regulated access to the resources and better quality control in the frankincense market."
CIFOR scientist Habtemariam Kassa and his team discovered that adjusting the current grading system for frankincense – to take into account the essential oil content of the resin – could strengthen Ethiopia’s bargaining power in global markets. Kassa worked with regional governments to ensure that farmer cooperatives have better access to dry forests and have a stronger say in the governance of the market chain.
The team worked with a school of natural resource management, the Wondo Genet College of Forestry, to establish a master’s programme in dryland forest management. It also developed a manual on sustainable frankincense production, which the Ministry of Agriculture has translated into Amharic and will integrate into the national forestry extension services. Kassa also worked with ministry officials on the National Forest Act and its guidelines.
‘Once farmers, the public and the private sector understand that there are major economic incentives in managing forests properly, it is likely to lead to better conservation and livelihood outcomes due to better regulated access to the resources and better quality control in the frankincense market,’ Kassa said.