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Toward a sustainable future for frankincense: An ancient medicine in a modern world

Written by Anjanette DeCarlo and Stephen Johnson


During the last 25-30 years the world of frankincense has undergone profound changes. Not only has there been a worldwide boom in demand, which has put great stress on the frankincense supply chain, but also the structure and geography of the market have undergone significant transformations. These changes have taken place against a background of a fluid and sometimes deteriorating socio-economic and political situation in many of the major producing countries. Few people in the industry are aware that a large proportion of the frankincense they buy comes from areas where poverty, limited governance, and drought are the norm. The challenge that faces this trade today is how to sustainably channel some of the gains made through the massive growth in demand for frankincense back to those who harvest, grade and manage this fabled ancient commodity. One short article will not answer this question, but we want to encourage the reader to think beyond the exotic stories and promotional material that are so often held to represent the reality of frankincense and instead begin to search for, invest in, and promote solutions that aim to improve the livelihoods and socio-economic status of the people who harvest this ancient commodity. Although there are real, serious challenges in these supply chains, there are also real solutions to ensure the benefits of the trade actually benefit the communities that live with, own, and manage the trees. As people and companies who use and love frankincense, it is our responsibility to ensure these solutions are enacted.

Anjanette DeCarlo

Dr. Anjanette DeCarlo received her doctorate in Natural Resources and Environment from the University of Vermont. She is a Lecturer on supply chains in the Sustainable Innovation MBA at UVM and Anthropology at Saint Michaels College. As the Chief Sustainability Scientist at the Aromatic Plant Research Center, she conducts primary anthropological and ecological field research and ecological supply chain analysis on aromatic and medicinal species. As founder of the Save Frankincense initiative (and sole proprietor of her own LLC) she consults with the private sector on green and ethical supply webs and provides education and outreach for the public. As a development expert, she has worked on post-conflict evaluations of natural assets, supply chains and environmental projects, cross culturally, in Somaliland, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Peru, Cuba, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Canada and China. Previously, Dr. DeCarlo was the Program Director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics and with the Natural Resources Defense Council, where she worked on some of the first iterations of socially responsible business benchmarks and triple bottom line reporting. Currently, she serves on the Board of Directors of Somaliland Biodiversity Foundation and the Global Frankincense Alliance. Dr. DeCarlo’s intensive work on frankincense is regularly highlighted in the media including CNN Inside Africa, the New York Times, and National Geographic

Stephen Johnson

Stephen Johnson has been working on the sustainability of wild-harvested products since 2016. He has conducted field research and analyses in West Africa (Burkina Faso, Ghana), East Africa (Ethiopia, Somaliland, Puntland), and the Arabian Peninsula (Oman), and has published almost a dozen peer-reviewed papers, book chapters, and reports on frankincense. As a supplier of frankincense, myrrh, and other wild-harvested products, Stephen focuses on directly implementing regenerative approaches, as well as celebrating and promoting the brilliant rainbow of diversity in the scent, chemistry, and ecology of different frankincense and myrrh species.

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