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.
The boswellia habitat
There are currently 24 recognized species of frankincense (of which 6-8 experience significant international trade), which range extensively across Sahelian Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and into India. Boswellia dalzielii ranges across West Africa, from southern Mali as far east as Cameroon. Boswellia papyrifera begins in northern Cameroon and ranges east to the Red Sea, with the bulk of the trees found in Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea. Ethiopia alone hosts six species of Boswellia, including the commercially harvested B. papyrifera, B. rivae and B. neglecta. Kenya contains extensive areas of B. neglecta and to a much lesser degree B. rivae and B. papyrifera on its northern borders. Somalia claims seven species, including the endemic B. frereana, while the highest known density of Boswellia species is found on tiny Socotra Island, which, despite its small size, hosts eleven endemic species. Boswellia sacra is found in Oman and mainland Yemen. It also grows in Somalia, where it is known by the synonym B. carteri. India hosts an endemic species (B. ovalifoliolata), as well as the much more commonly known and harvested B. serrata.
While different species of Boswellia trees show marked habitat preferences, most are surprisingly resilient and can grow in a wide range of habitats (see T-1). By and large they are found in arid, harsh, resource-scarce environments where few other species survive. In both Oman and Yemen, and in Somaliland and northern Somalia, B. sacra trees are found in arid wadis (dry riverbeds) and on the limestone or volcanic rocks, particularly of the seaward-facing mountains. As Salah Ajeeb, a Sudanese frankincense expert based in Oman points out, in these regions the little-researched role of mist and fog in producing good quality frankincense is critical. Here, the trees usually must rely on the oceanic mists and fogs for water and nutrients. In Somalia, the trees often specialize on growing on sheer rock, storing water in bulbous roots, and are seldom found growing roots in soil. By contrast, B. frereana trees prefer even drier lowland conditions on the coastal plain, rarely found in the high-altitude mists that B. sacra prefer. In Oman, the grades of resin (Hojari, Shaabi, Najdi, Shazri) actually refer to four different ecological zones with each grade producing recognizably different types of resin from the same B. sacra species. Geographers at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman have shown that climate change and deforestation are already having a marked impact on the volume and frequency of mist and fog on the Dhofar coastline. This problem will likely have an ongoing impact both in Oman and in Somalia, as climate change continues.
Table 1. Key species in trade
|Species||Main range/Exporting states|
|Boswellia sacra (syn. B. carteri)||Somalia, Somaliland, Oman (and previously Yemen)|
|Boswellia frereana||Somalia, Somaliland|
|Boswellia papyrifera||Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea|
|Boswellia dalzielii||Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Mali|
|Boswellia neglecta||Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia|
|Boswellia rivae||Ethiopia, Somaliland, Somalia|
Ongoing extensive research on the geography of frankincense on Socotra Island has found that the trees take advantage of these oceanic mists, with specific species tending to inhabit specific zones; several species are found only on cliffs, while the ground-rooted species occupy only specific micro-ranges based on the type of soil. By contrast B. papyrifera, one of the most wide-ranging species, is somewhat less particular about its habitat. As professor Frans Bongers of Wageningen University and renowned expert on this species points out, although B. papyrifera typically prefers rocky slopes and poor, iron-rich soils, it can be found growing across a range of altitudes, soil types and rainfalls, from the arid Sahel to the comparatively water-rich dry tropical forests.” In areas with high rainfall, B. papyrifera trees can be found at extraordinary densities, up to 1,100 trees per hectare” points out professor Bongers. The main known populations are in the Nuba Mountains and Jebel Mara in Sudan, Tigray, Amhara and Benishangul-Gumuz provinces of Ethiopia, and northern Eritrea. Both B. dalzielii and B. serrata are similarly hardy species, although they prefer to inhabit dry mixed tropical forests in the West African Sahel and Indian interior, respectively. Both species grow to a considerable size in fertile soils, while being able to grow in a range of soil types. Researchers at the Tropical Forest Research Institute at Japalpur in Central India point out that B. serrata—unlike most Boswellia—is frost-tolerant and serves as a nurse tree for other species. Although the Deccan plateau of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are where most commercial harvesting is undertaken, B. serrata can actually be found much farther south in North East Sri Lanka and Karnataka, and as far north as the Indo Pakistan border in Punjab.
The diversity of frankincense: Species or chemotypes?
The diversity of frankincense species and chemistry can be confusing for buyers, consumers, formulators, and regulatory experts responsible for establishing standards for frankincense. An urgent review of the differing standards for frankincense in different countries and different industries is required to clarify overlaps and ensure more uniformity. Furthermore, individual species can have multiple distinct chemotypes, which is especially common in commonly traded species such as B. sacra. As a result, purely botanical DNA-based identification of species may not be the most useful way to classify and develop standards for frankincense essential oils. Rather, classification by both species and chemotype may be needed to provide a whole picture of the origin, type and likely aroma of the essential oil produced. Furthermore, many studies on the chemistry of frankincense have used commercial samples of resin, purchased outside of Boswellia range states; this makes it difficult to confirm species identify, and clouds the literature. Studies should focus on confirmed samples of resin obtained where it was harvested.
New discoveries, new species, new aromas
Even though traded and used for centuries, in the last 20 years there have been new discoveries in the field of frankincense; new species have been described, new chemotypes discovered, and new sources of unique aromas found. Many of these recent developments have emerged because of improved technologies for identification and analysis as well as novel methods of monitoring resin harvests and transport. These new methods are helping scientists overturn many long-held misconceptions and correct much inaccurate and misleading information about frankincense, its properties and habitat.
In the last 20 years, several new species have been described, such as B. disocoridis, B. bullata, B. aspleniifolia, and B. samhaensis from the tiny island of Socotra Island in the Indian Ocean; B. occulta and B. globosa from Somaliland; and B. madagascariensis was removed from Boswellia and transferred to its own genus, Ambilobea. Boswellia occulta in particular is interesting because this species produces a unique methoxyalkane-dominant aroma unlike that of any other known essential oil. Recent work by professor Amadé Ouédraogo in Burkina Faso has done much to increase interest in B. dalzielii—a previously largely ignored West African Boswellia species—which has just been found to possess an alpha-pinene dominant oil that aligns very well with current commercialized species and chemotypes.
Given the vast, remote and inhospitable habitat that Boswellia thrives in, we suspect that more species and chemotypes will soon be discovered as interest in the plant grows and survey techniques improve. Furthermore, work on hybridization by scientists like Jason Eslamieh, in California will result in several new types of frankincense emerging with special olfactory and agroecological features. Although these new developments are indeed exciting and interesting, one cannot help but note that the vast majority of R&D into new aromas and value-added frankincense products is done in places like USA, Europe and China far from the site of the harvesting and collection.
New Trends in Trade
As with all commodities, trends change. The traditional Arab market for frankincense for chewing use and for such functions as fumigating clothes and in traditional medicine has declined due to Western-style education and economic growth. While the practice of burning incense, particularly on special occasions, does not seem to have declined much, in the cities, traditional incense burners are being replaced with air fresheners and electrically operated diffusers. Modern alcohol-based perfumes using frankincense oil and extracts are largely replacing traditional attars, and home-prepared bokhuur (fragrant incense balls) and uunsi (prepared incense).
While use of frankincense at mosques and many Christian churches has been consistent, incense represents a declining percentage of the overall global trade in frankincense resin. Please see F-1 for an estimated breakdown of the global resin market. In particular, three major new markets have emerged in the last 20 years:
1. Cosmetic and skin care products – Use in frankincense oils and extracts has boomed during this period. Companies like UK-based Lush Cosmetics and Neal’s Yard Remedies produce an increasingly wide range of products using frankincense resin extracts in various forms.
2. Aromatherapy and spa and wellness –This sector has seen spectacular growth. Frankincense is one of the top oils used by aromatherapists and multi-level market giants like doTERRA and Young Living have set up their own supply chains for this raw material, reportedly using dozens of tonnes of frankincense oil a year. These two companies alone have recently become some of the largest buyers of the resin and oil in the world.
3. Boswellic acid extracts – The other growing new market are chemical extracts from the resin, particularly Boswellic acids, which are non-volatile components of frankincense in varying amounts. Through a few human clinical trials and many in vitro and rodent trials, Boswellic acids and related chemical components have been shown to have high medical potential in the treatment of such conditions as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, low back pain, soft tissue rheumatism, myositis, fibrositis, chronic colitis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, bronchial asthma and peritumoral brain edemas.
Medicinal Uses of Frankincense
Frankincense resin have been used medicinally for thousands of years both locally wherever they grow, and in major ethno-medical systems like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine. The resins have been used, in various formulations, for ailments as diverse as neurological issues, inflammatory conditions, gastrointestinal issues, treatment of wounds, oral health, rheumatism, venereal diseases, etc. Modern scientific studies have upheld many of these therapeutic properties, although most studies have been conducted in vitro rather than in clinical settings; indeed, the number of well-controlled clinical trials using frankincense or frankincense products is very small. A few major properties of frankincense include:
1. Antimicrobial, Antifungal, and Antiviral Activity
There is strong evidence of the antimicrobial and antifungal activity of all species of frankincense studied. Both the resin and the essential oil appear to be effective against a wide range of microorganisms. Interestingly, different species of frankincense appear to combat different types of pathogens better. For instance, B. sacra syn B. carteri and B. serrata are more effective against Pseudomonas aeruginosa (1)than B. rivae, but the latter combats Escherichia coli more effectively than the formers. However, these studies have almost all been conducted in vitro rather than in vivo; it likely acts as an effective topical antibiotic but we cannot assume it would have similar actions when ingested or otherwise applied. There is some evidence that frankincense has antiviral effects, although the number of studies focusing on this is relatively small.
2. Anti-Inflammatory Activity
A variety of studies have found anti-inflammatory effects of frankincense (2). These effects have largely been attributed to the boswellic acids (pentacyclic triterpenes) and incensole acetate in the resins. Extracts containing these compounds have been shown to effectively treat inflammatory conditions, especially at relatively high doses. Almost all of these studies have been done on rats and mice, however; the majority of human clinical trials have had some reason to be skeptical of the results (not reporting all data, no replication, small sample sizes, funding not disclosed, etc.). Still, the small number of methodologically sound human clinical studies have indicated clinical effectiveness of Boswellia extracts with no major safety issues.
3. Potential Anti-Cancer Properties
Boswellia extracts have shown some promise against cancer cells in vitro (3), and a number of studies in vivo in mice have shown promise in prolonging survival time and either decreasing tumor size or preventing increases, with no systemic toxicities reported. However, there have been no human clinical trials, and as a result we cannot speculate about the efficacy of Boswellia against cancer in a clinical setting. Frankincense, particularly frankincense essential oil, has been promoted as a miracle cancer cure, despite the fact that the active components (boswellic acids) are not present in the essential oil. Claims such as these were part of the driver for the explosion in popularity of frankincense essential oil over the past 15 years.
4. CNS Activity
Studies in mice and rats have supported the existence of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant effects of frankincense, particularly of incensole acetate, present in significant amounts in B. papyrifera. These effects seem to be mediated through action affecting the TRPV3 channels, which are known to be associated with the feeling of warmth in humans. Frankincense also seems to have analgesic and sedative properties, although these are not thought to be related to the TRPV3 channels. There is also mixed evidence from studies on mice that have indicated frankincense may have a neuroprotective effect and could limit neural damage after head injuries (4).
5. Safety and Bioavailability
Topical application of Boswellia extracts appears to be effective for skin conditions, and oral consumption of resin may be effective for gastrointestinal conditions. However, oral ingestion does not seem to translate into frankincense components being seen in the blood. There seem to be minimal safety issues with the use of frankincense, although high doses of extracts may cause minor gastrointestinal issues (diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain) and topical application of undiluted essential oil or extracts can cause contact dermatitis and skin sensitization. Ingestion of essential oil is not recommended as it can cause burns of the esophagus or stomach. However, serious or life-threatening conditions are not generally reported.
Trade routes, new and old
Frankincense has been traded globally for thousands of years and constitutes one of the oldest globalized commodities. The original markets were in Egypt and Mesopotamia, sourcing resins from the Land of Punt, which is believed to be centered in modern-day Eritrea, Somalia, and/or southern Arabia. As Nigel Groom points out, trade in the Classical era was largely centered on the Arabian Peninsula, the Red Sea and the ancient Nabatean trade routes across the Empty Quarter to Makka, Jersusalem, Petra and on to Aleppo and Baghdad. It was not until the advent and growth of Christianity that the European market developed and the opening up of the Chinese market was largely due to bravery of Omani seamen and explorers like Marco Polo who established trade routes from India and Arabia to China more than 400 hundred years ago. Today the markets in Asia have grown while North America has also been added to the traditional Middle Eastern markets.
Trade in Boswellia Papyrifera
B. papyrifera is the major source of resin for incense in Europe and orthodox churches in Ethiopia, Egypt and beyond. Due to low essential oil yields of between 1-2% and its rather unusual chemistry (dominated by octyl acetate rather than terpenes) the resin traditionally has been traded more for incense than for essential oil use; although this is beginning to change, the vast majority still goes to incense or boswellic acid extraction. Boswellia papyrifera is supplied primarily from Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea. Eritrea was the main supplier of this type until well into the 20th century, but the decline in tree population and increasing demand have shifted the bulk of the trade to Ethiopia and Sudan. Today, Eritrea supplies less than 450 tonnes per year; Ethiopian exports are often 10 times this number. Trade numbers for Sudan have been elusive, but estimates are consistently lower than Ethiopian numbers although much Sudanese resin is undoubtedly sent across the border to be exported through Ethiopian companies. This may be changing, though, as many of the Ethiopian production areas have become mired in the current Tigray war and exports are reported to have sharply declined. The main market for this type of resin is in China where it is used in traditional medicine and more recently for incense. In addition, Indian extractors of Boswellic acids like Indfrag Biosciences and Alchem have been using Sudanese sources of resin for some years as B. serrata resin has become increasingly scarce.
Trade in Boswellia Sacra (Oman/Yemen)
Despite the classification of Omani, Yemeni and Somalian B. sacra as being the same species, the markets and trade routes are quite different. Once a major source of frankincense in antiquity, Oman and Yemen now play a relatively small, specialized role in the global frankincense trade. Yemen was traditionally the major trade route for frankincense, both from Oman as well as resin coming from Africa through Aden and Red Sea ports. Today, the ongoing civil war has all but eliminated both harvest and trade in Yemen. Virtually all legitimate trade is from Oman, where a few hundred tonnes of resin are harvested each year. To encourage local value addition, the Oman government has recently placed restrictions on the export of crude resin, leading to a number of high-quality local distilleries. The majority of essential oils produced in Oman is exported for use in the European cosmetic or U.S aromatherapy sector. However, a recent survey by the Environmental Society of Oman showed that despite government controls, a significant amount of resin is being exported by road to the Emirates for local use and export trade. Quantities are generally unrecorded as bags of resin are usually taken by car or small vans. The fact that the Oman government is stable and secure and has moreover made some strides towards developing sustainable supply chains for its frankincense has meant that several U.S and European companies including Young Living, doTERRA and Neal’s Yard Remedies have in the last few years switched some of their sourcing to Oman. This trend may accelerate in the coming years.
Trade in B. sacra (syn. B. carteri) (Somaliland/Somalia)
The classic frankincense of choice for perfumery, B. sacra from Somalia was traditionally shipped through Aden in Yemen to markets in Europe and later to China. Although this oil is still used in perfumery, a significant portion of Somalian B. sacra essential oil is now used in aromatherapy. This trade has grown significantly from ~200 tonnes in 1987 to an estimated 2,000+ tonnes in 2018. With just a few companies driving large scale demand, most resins are shipped from Somaliland or Somalia to Dubai, Europe, the United States and Kenya for distillation. North America is the current major market for aromatherapy products, although the Asian market is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. Despite the fact that both France and Italy have been active in the Horn of Africa for over a century, few essential oil distilleries or extraction facilities exist in the region. Almost all the resin from this area is distilled in France, the UK, Dubai, Kenya, or more recently Bulgaria and India. In addition to the higher carbon footprint required of shipping large bulk resin rather than the extracts ultimately desired, this approach robs range states of value added secondary manufacturing and the tax revenue and jobs that come with it. This approach follows the same neocolonial standard of raw resource extraction at low prices that has inhibited economic progress in developing nations.
Trade in Boswellia frereana
The majority of B. frereana is used for chewing purposes and for special types of incense. Boswellia frereana is seldom use for distillation or extraction, being expensive and generally limited in supply. Nevertheless there is a growing awareness in the west of this so called “King of Frankincense” and several American and European companies now stock it. Boswellia frereana is also known as Coptic frankincense and is used in the Coptic Churches of Egypt and Ethiopia and elsewhere. But as Nigel Groom points out in his classic 1981 historical treatise, the vast majority has traditionally been sold in Saudi Arabia for use by pilgrims going to Mecca for Haj. The traditional trade route was across the Red Sea to Yemeni ports and then to Jeddah and Makka. Due to the civil war, Dubai and Jeddah have to some extent replaced these Yemeni ports as the entry points into the Arabian market.
Trade in Boswellia serrata
High in a-thujene and so less aromatically desirable than some of the other frankincense types, some of the resin from B. serrata is exported from India to the Chinese and other markets, but the majority is either locally distilled as a inexpensive essential oil or solvent-extracted for the production of Boswellic acid used in herbal supplements sold around the world. These supplements have become of increasing interest in Europe, where a human clinical trial showed that a topical application helped reduce arthritic pain; B. serrata is the only species of Boswellia approved for use as a herbal supplement within the European Union. Recent reports by IUCN and several Indian conservation agencies, however, indicate that the increased demand for B. serrata for use in Ayurvedic medicine in Asia and the herbal industry in Europe and North America may be resulting in threats to these populations. Some attempts at cultivation have taken place in India and CSIR, and other research centers are working on methods of enhancing resin yield from existing wild harvest trees, but the problem of sustainability remains.
Ten frequent frankincense myths and legends
1. Frankincense is an ancient product used in the Catholic and Orthodox Church
While frankincense is indeed a product used in church, its use is far more extensive and multidimensional. Frankincense is part of religious ceremonies worldwide, is used as modern and traditional medicine and aromatherapy, as a cosmetic and fragrance ingredient, as a preservative and purifier as well as many other household applications throughout the world.
2. Frankincense is from Arabia
One species of Boswellia, B. sacra, grows in Arabia. While the resin from this region has been harvested for generations, the vast majority of frankincense today comes from North Africa and India, especially Ethiopia and Somalia with Sudan and West Africa as emerging sources. B. sacra syn carteri (see below) and B. frereana grow only in Somalia.
3. There is Boswellic acid in frankincense essential oil
Boswellic acids are non-volatile pentacyclic triterpenes, meaning that they are too large and heavy to be in essential oil. Extracts may contain Boswellic acids, but essential oils cannot and do not contain any of these heavy molecules.
4. The highest quality frankincense is from Oman, Somalia, etc…
Most regions that harvest Boswellia trees claim to possess “the best” frankincense. Quality, however, is subjective. The different species have dramatically different chemotypes and aroma profiles; B. papyrifera smells nothing like B. serrata; while B. frereana and B. sacra are also quite distinct, etc. The highest quality frankincense is the one which best fits the needs of the consumer be it for fragrance, chewing, cosmetic or medicinal purposes.
5. Frankincense essential oil can treat cancer and many other diseases
Frankincense has never been used to successfully treat cancer in a clinical setting. A small number of in vitro and rodent trials have shown some degree of cytotoxicity, but these are small, preliminary studies on cells in a petri dish. Boswellic acid has shown promise as an anti-tumoral agent, but frankincense essential oils do not contain Boswellic acids. Furthermore, despite seemingly endless claims for the health benefits of frankincense; from depression to infertility there are, until now, no well-structured human clinical trials to support these claims.
6. B. carteri and B. sacra…which is which?
Boswellia carteri is officially recognized as a synonym of B. sacra with B. sacra referred by botanists as now the “official” name. Nevertheless, both are still commonly used for several reasons, not least of which is that they each tend to have unique scent and chemical profiles. Boswellia carteri is used to refer to the populations of B. sacra growing in Somaliland and Somalia, while B. sacra are used to refer to the Arabian populations.
7. There is a species called B. thurifera
There is no officially recognized species called B. thurifera. The name was used to refer to several different species but today is recognized as an outdated synonym of B. serrata.
8. Frankincense is sustainably harvested by generations of tappers who carefully manage the trees.
Despite the romantic “camel caravan” imagery, many of the places frankincense trees grow are in insecure areas where populations live in extreme poverty. While an overall independent assessment remains to be done, declines in some species have been reported due to a raft of complex interdependent factors, including fire, land conversion, unclear ownership, grazing animals, and over-tapping due to increased global demand, and a lack of additional income streams. Recent work on B. papyrifera in Ethiopia suggests that without dramatic changes in stewardship and harvesting practices, in some areas, the trees may be extinct within 20-30 years. While this does not seem to be the case with most species, it highlights the importance of conducting additional research.
9. Boswellia cannot be cultivated
Most species of Boswellia are in fact relatively easy to cultivate and will grow readily from either cuttings or seedlings. Both government and private sector nurseries exists in Oman and while investment in frankincense cultivation has been surprisingly limited, modern drip irrigated frankincense plantations are currently found in both Oman and the USA!
10. Organic certification means the resin is harvested sustainably
Organic certification does not guarantee either the purity or sustainability of frankincense. Many commercial “organically labelled” B. carteri essential oils were shown recently to contain a mix of species, including the newly-discovered B. occulta. Organic certification simply refers to the fact that artificial fertilizers and pesticides have not been used in cultivation and no synthetic chemicals were applied during the processing of the resin.
A brief look at frankincense chemistry
The gum resin of the Boswellia. Species mainly consists of polysaccharide gum, resinous di- and triterpenic acids, and volatile oil with different proportions of constituents that vary from species to species.
The volatile oils (essential oils) of the oleo-gum-resins are largely composed of terpenes. Most commonly, the essential oils are dominated by a-pinene or a-thujene, with minor components also prominent such as limonene, myrcene, sabinene, p-cymene, terpinen-4-ol, b -caryophyllene or viridiflorol. Researchers at the University of Wageningen, University of Nizwa and elsewhere have discovered that the gum resins of B. serrata, B. papyrifera, and B. sacra (syn B. carteri) contain different combinations of bioactive pentacyclic triterpenic acids, namely a-Boswellic acids, b-Boswellic acids, g-Boswellic acid, acetyl-b-Boswellic acid, 11-keto-b-Boswellic acid (KBA), acetyl-11-keto-b-Boswellic acid (AKBA), and tetracyclic triterpenic acids like tirucallic acids viz 3-oxotirucallic acid, 3-hydroxytirucallic acid, and 3-acetoxytirucallic acid. Other oleo gum resin compounds which display biological activities are: betulinic acid, lupenoic acid, epi-lupeol, isoincensole, isoincensole acetate and 1-ursene-2-diketone-incensole acetate along with few other terpenes. It should be noted that Boswellic acids are not found in the distilled volatile oils.
Even relatively minor differences in the chemical profiles of the essential oils, especially in the heavier sesquiterpenes can yield significantly different aroma profiles—two different B. sacra essential oils can smell completely different! At least two Boswellia species have very different constituents to the B. sacra, B. dalzielii, B. serrata, B. neglecta group, namely B. papyrifera, which produces essential oils rich in octyl acetate and octanol, and B. occulta, which produces methoxyalkanes such as methoxydecane and methoxyoctane.]
Challenges in sourcing and production
While the demand for frankincense has been rising, few journalists writing about this product are aware of the often exploitative conditions under which this product is harvested, stored, graded and shipped. Yet the fact is that much of the frankincense used in the fragrance and cosmetic industry comes from areas where war, drought, famine and political instability have become the norm, and where claims of ethical and sustainable sourcing are often a far cry from reality.
It is important to remember that there are no universal truths in frankincense; although it is often treated like a homogenous entity, the different species of Boswellia are spread across many different environments and social, political, and economic contexts. Some supply chains are better than others, and some resins are sustainably sourced while others are not. Frankincense in many areas is in a “conservation through use” context, where the economic value of the trade in frankincense resin prevents the trees from being subject to more destructive uses such as bark stripping, charcoaling, and land conversion for agriculture. It is also a critical source of income and livelihood for hundreds of thousands of people. As a result, we’re not arguing against the use or trade of frankincense. But it doesn’t help to ignore or hide from problems either. Truly supporting frankincense means acknowledging the issues that exist in many of the supply chains and working to implement real, workable, scalable solutions to these challenges (see below). Below we elaborate on some of the challenges frankincense faces.
Instability and Supply Chain Disruptions
Over the past 30 years, African supply chains have experienced repeated disruptions. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, Ethiopia dealt with a near-perpetual state of war against multiple popular uprisings, especially in Tigray and Eritrea, two major production areas for frankincense. A new war in Tigray began in late 2020, and has since destabilized large portions of the frankincense production areas in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Ethiopia has also seen disruptions in the production system as a result of political decision making; prior to 2018, much of the production of B. papyrifera frankincense took place in concessions leased, controlled, and operated by private companies. This allowed a relatively high level of centralized control over the types of harvesting and land management practices used. In 2018 and after, however, the government began shifting towards promoting local cooperatives over private concessions. While a positive idea in theory, these cooperatives were often formed from villages and people with no history or training in frankincense harvesting, and did not have the same kinds of training and monitoring that concession workers had access to. As a result, production is reported to have dropped significantly, with poorer harvesting practices commonly observed. Part of this is due to the political movement to remove Tigrayans (the incumbent ethnic group controlling much of the government) and replace them with Oromo personnel (a long-disadvantaged ethnic group), which led to the removal of many experienced foresters. Still, Ethiopia has a relatively high level of qualified forestry personnel.
The Second Sudanese Civil War raged for even longer, from the 1980s until 2005, largely centered in frankincense production areas. Somalia, for its part, still represents a deeply conflicted and dangerous place, although the situation in Somaliland is somewhat stable. In civil war from 1988-1991, much of the country fell into chaos and warlord-ruled anarchy afterwards, and is still plagued by ineffectual government, warlords and terrorism. The frankincense-producing areas of northern Somalia were partitioned following the war into the territory of the autonomous Puntland region of Somalia, and the self-declared independent Republic of Somaliland. Much of the divided Sanaag region is claimed by both sides, with periodic border clashes. Occasional inter-tribal skirmishes and extreme skepticism of outsiders further increases the opacity of the frankincense territories. Multiple terrorist factions, most prominently the Al-Qaida- allied Al-Shabaab and the notorious Islamic State, have established theaters of support and operation in the northern mountains of Puntland, some of which are in territories that produce frankincense. Somaliland is more stable, especially in the areas west of the regional capital of Erigavo, but it still suffers from a lack of centralized governance. The harvesting areas are largely under local control of the clans that traditionally inhabit those areas, while the central government has few resources or ability to enforce regulations. An independent Somaliland Gums & Resins Agency was created in 2017, but it was dissolved and placed as a department under the Ministry of Commerce in 2018 amidst concerns of corruption by private business interests.
Instability in Sudan has been longstanding. The ultimate partition of Sudan and South Sudan drew a national border directly through the range of the Boswellia trees, with Sudan emerging as the major supplier. The recent fall of the Sudanese government threw further complications into the trade. In all three major production regions of Blue Nile, south Kordofan and Darfur, war and fighting are significant issues. There are poor access roads and little ability to discern where resins come from or the conditions under which they were produced. Lack of any kind of data or statistical records means that data on resin harvest and trade has been all but non-existent for many years.
In West Africa, where B. dalzielii may become an important source of frankincense in the future, insurgencies and political instability currently plague the main producing regions of northern Nigeria, and the border regions of Burkina Faso and Mali. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has taken a heavy toll, especially in the northern provinces, and riots and kidnappings are common. In Burkina Faso, perennial insurgent activities along the borders with Mali and Niger are common. However, these areas have a relatively high level of governance and government capacity to enforce forestry regulations. Burkina Faso in particular has strong governmental and academic infrastructure, with significant forestry experience due to the shea industry and extensive reforestation/replanting initiatives. Mali experiences similar insurgent activity, especially from Islamist insurgents in the north, although this only affects part of the frankincense production areas. These situations are fluid, with the particular areas affected and outlooks changing from year to year.
These situations also raise the question of whether frankincense [resource curse] is in itself linked to violence. Many of the belligerent groups operating in frankincense territories are local insurgencies, relying on a variety of revenue sources such as charcoal exports, local “taxes”, etc. In these scenarios, frankincense may provide a source of revenue either directly or indirectly, although this varies from place to place. In Yemen it is not significant but in parts of Somalia it certainly is. Furthermore, in active conflict zones such Somalia and Sudan, some unscrupulous generalist traders will trade in frankincense and anything else they can profit off of, such as guns or narcotics. Khat is increasingly an epidemic in the harvesting regions in Somalia, often paid for by frankincense; in some areas trucks drive into villages loaded with khat, and drive out loaded with frankincense (something we have personally observed). Although frankincense in these cases is not the cause of conflict, it can be an important source of income for groups that are actively engaged in conflict activities. As a result, traceability and monitoring are critical to ensuring that resin is being sourced ethically.
In the last 10 years, multiple studies have emerged indicating sustainability challenges facing many species of frankincense. Almost all species of Boswellia face some combination of five major types of threats, although which threats are present or critical is different for each species and sometimes vary from area to area. As a result, it’s important to assess each species and local context separately.
Many frankincense grow in dry woodlands, where seasonal grasses are prone to catching fire in the dry season. This is particularly true for the B. papyrifera trees in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Eritrea. Here, fires are often set intentionally by the harvesters, to burn away long grasses and suppress biting flies and insects. While adult trees may have some resilience to low-intensity fire, these events kill seedlings and young trees, suppressing regeneration.
Grazing animals such as goats, cattle, and camels are particularly fond of frankincense leaves, and often share the environments in which these trees are found. In areas such as Ethiopia, the grazing pressure is intense enough to suppress all regeneration. In some areas of Oman, grazing suppresses flowering and seed production (although this may be confined to flat areas which camels can reach).
Intensive or improper harvesting techniques cause damage to frankincense trees. Deep cuts expose the heartwood, making it easy for boring beetles and other insects to attack the tree. Intensive tapping also reduces the carbon reserves of the tree, inhibiting reproduction by reducing the viability of seeds. This only applies to trees that are actively tapped, though; species like B. neglecta and B. rivae, which are not tapped but where the resin is simply gathered from natural self-exudations, do not experience this pressure. Boswellia dalzielii is traditionally harvested for bark rather than resin; in this case, tapping for resin actually reduces the harvesting pressure on the tree as resin tapping is less damaging than bark harvesting.
4. Land conversion
Some species of frankincense grow in areas suitable for agriculture. This is the case with species such as Boswellia papyrifera, B. serrata, and B. dalzielii. Areas of natural forest are often cleared of trees to allow planting of crops like sorghum, maize, cotton, and sesame. Other species, like B. sacra in Oman, may be threatened by other forms of land conversion such as mining activity (they grow in areas unsuitable for agriculture but suitable for gravel mining).
5. Biological threats (insect attack, invasive species, etc.)
Many species of frankincense are subject to attacks by boring beetles, which may be fatal to the tree. This is commonly seen in B. papyrifera, B. sacra (syn. B. carteri), and B. frereana. This threat interacts with overharvesting in that high levels of harvesting make the tree more susceptible to insect damage. Additionally, in some parts of India, B. serrata is being crowded out by the invasive shrub Lantana camara. In northern Ethiopia, mistletoes also parasitize the B. papyrifera trees, although it is unclear how much this affects them.
Inequities in the Distribution of Benefits of the Trade
It is important to remember that, while frankincense is a unique genus of tree and a valuable medicinal and aromatic product, it is also a livelihood for tens or hundreds of thousands of people across its range. Indeed, in 2016 the UN FAO estimated that 225,000 people in Somaliland and Somalia derived the majority of their income from frankincense or frankincense-related work. Tellingly, it was reported that it was the poorest families who were the most dependent on the resins. While the exact number of people who rely on frankincense for their income is unknown, the point is clear: frankincense is intertwined as a way of life for hundreds or thousands of communities.
Despite the boom in popularity of frankincense, however, the vast majority of economic benefits have not reached harvesters or their communities. The lion’s share of the export value is taken up by local middlemen, traders, and exporters, while most value addition takes place outside of range states and the retail value of the finished products is almost exclusively concentrated outside of range states in Europe, North America, and East Asia. This is due to the traditional extraction model where frankincense has been purchased from range states for the lowest possible prices for years. As a result, the amount paid to harvesters may be as little as 1-2% of the retail value of the resin or essential oil. The women who sort the frankincense resins are paid even less. At the same time, there has been little effort to invest in these communities or support infrastructure such as education, alternative income, etc. Harvesting communities are particularly vulnerable to manipulation and economic abuse as well, as the traditional system often involves taking resin on credit and/or making some of the payment in the form of food. In Somaliland and Somalia, for instance, there are numerous accusations that at least one exporter has failed to pay for the resin they’ve taken. This exporter has been embroiled in multiple lawsuits (some of which are ongoing) worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each over unpaid bills.
Consequently, many harvesting communities remain mired in poverty despite the ultimate value of the product they handle, a situation sadly not uncommon in wild-harvested plants and non-timber forest products. This is concerning both from a humanitarian point of view, but also from a conservation point of view—a critical component of ensuring successful long-term conservation-through-use is that economic benefits reach producers and their communities, and that these benefits incentivize conservation of the species.
Lack of transparency
Perhaps the most critical challenge to the sustainability of the resin trade is the opacity of the supply chains and the lack of traceability or monitoring of where and how resin is produced. Instability in many areas and resistance by embedded interests have made it difficult to access the source of some frankincense resins, do in-depth assessments of the full range and status of the trees or to make traceability an easy option. The origins of many resins on the market remain opaque, a situation with which many companies seem content. Conflicts may also disrupt production and the trade routes used to move the resins.
With international market demand greater than ever before, this opacity puts the frankincense trees at risk. Sustainable management, by definition, requires trading one-time, short-term gains for long-term, continuous gains; for this to work, the harvesters need to be sure that they will have continuous, long-term access to the resource. In conflict situations, this assurance is less likely. This lack of transparency gives space to unscrupulous actors in the supply chain who prefer greenwashing and empty claims to actually following through with ethical practices. As long as this opacity remains, companies can claim they pay fairly and harvest sustainably, because there’s no way to prove differently. This also explains why some companies claim transparency isn’t possible, despite the initiatives currently underway (see Case Study of blockchain, below).
Solutions to Create a Sustainable Future for Frankincense
Despite these challenges, a sustainable and regenerative future for frankincense is possible. Despite the discouragement by those with a vested interest in maintaining the opacity of these supply chains, there are a variety of ways to promote regenerative sourcing of frankincense. Is it easy? No. Is it possible? Yes.
1. Traceability and Transparency
Lifting the veil of secrecy that surrounds frankincense production in many areas is the critical first step to ensuring long-term sustainability in these supply chains. Ensuring proper traceability means that the trees producing the resin a company uses can be monitored for their health or for any interventions needed; it allows buyers to ensure that they are partnering the with the same producing communities to create long-term stability; it opens opportunities to confirm how much harvesters are being paid and that claims of community development support are being followed through on. The opacity that currently exists makes it difficult for companies and consumers who care to ensure they are having a positive impact, it prevents resources and benefits from the trade from being distributed fairly, and provides cover to bad actors who use exploitative and abusive practices and attempt to greenwash their actions.
Case Study: Blockchain for Transparency in Frankincense Supply Chains
Ensuring transparency in natural product supply chains is no easy task, especially when products are sources in developing, conflict-prone areas. However, technologies like blockchain help meet this challenge by providing an incorruptible platform to document the operations of the supply chain. Blockchain traceability is currently being deployed in the Boswellia sacra syn. carteri and myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) supply chains in Somaliland by FairSource Botanicals and a consortium of companies such as Lush Cosmetics and Pacha Soap Co. This provides a platform to upload and verify data, allowing the capture of information such as resin origin (village and harvesting site), movement of resin through the supply chain, purchase of the resin (who is being paid and how much), documented payments via a common mobile banking platform, contributions to community development funds, as well as sustainability information such as photos of individual trees, survey data, etc. This process allows buyers and users of frankincense and myrrh to confirm that the resins and oils have been ethically sourced. This is especially critical considering the concerns about overharvesting and accusations of non-payment against certain exporters. For instance, by using a mobile banking platform called Zaad rather than cash payments (a common practice in the harvesting regions anyways), digital payment records can be generated and preserved on the blockchain, to demonstrate that payments were made on time, in full, to the correct people (not to middlemen). Implementing this system means buyers can demand proof of good practices and can hold their suppliers accountable.
The advantages of blockchain are that it is flexible and scalable—it can be used as widely across the supply chain as needed, can accommodate virtually any type of information, and can be implemented regardless of the current status of the supply chain’s traceability, accommodating ongoing incremental improvements. In other words, it offers suppliers and buyers a way to see what the current practices are, identify where the gaps exist, and then ensure they are addressed by holding suppliers accountable.
Of course, blockchain is simply a platform to document practices, not a standard of practice itself. In other words, it allows buyers to see information about the supply chain, but doesn’t itself set a standard for what that information should reveal about the practices. As a result, it is valuable to have third-party oversight to ensure that the practices being revealed by the blockchain meet a standard of good practice. There is also the potential to tie in a transparency platform like blockchain with certification standards such as FairWild (see below) to expand the application of this standard and be able to audit more remote/inaccessible areas. Blockchain doesn’t mean the system is perfect, but it creates the transparency that is the critical first step to ensuring ethical practices are followed. Some companies have insisted that it’s not possible to implement blockchain in frankincense, possibly out of concern that transparency may reveal poor practices in their supply chains, but it is important to remember that the point of traceability and transparency isn’t to prove who is good and who is bad, but rather to gauge the current status of supply chain practices and determine how to improve and upscale positive impacts going forward. This is something that all companies should embrace.
2. Long-term Commitment to Harvesting Communities and Cooperatives
Sustainability emerges when the people harvesting and managing the trees are able to give up some production in the short term, in order to ensure production over the long-term (i.e. harvesting less resin today to ensure there will be resin available next year). Achieving this means building meaningful, long-term relationships with harvesting communities, offering them fair, multi-year partnerships to ensure they have stable income and a reliable market for their products. It also means investing in these communities to achieve development goals; many frankincense harvesting communities are among the poorest of the poor, and many in places like Somaliland and Somalia are primarily dependent on frankincense for their livelihoods. Investments in education, alternative income opportunities, water and food security, etc., can provide additional stability and help reduce the community’s dependence on resin harvesting, in turn helping create the conditions for sustainability. Furthermore, there should be specific attention given to the women’s cooperatives that clean and sort the frankincense resin. Efforts should focus on ensuring fair pay, protective equipment such as masks and gloves, safe and healthy working conditions, and ideally opportunities to support education, health care, etc.
3. Monitoring and Locally-Appropriate Support for Trees
Establishing full traceability in the supply chain allows companies to identify the harvesting sites and trees that are producing their resin. In turn, this allows monitoring to confirm the harvesting and management practices being used, and whether those practices are affecting the health or stability of the local tree population. By knowing what is happening in the specific areas they are sourcing, companies can craft locally-tailored sustainability solutions that meet the needs of those specific areas. For instance, establishing nurseries and protecting seedlings may be important in areas where regeneration is poor. On the other hand, price incentives and harvesting trainings may be more important in areas where regeneration is fine but there is a high intensity of harvesting. In this way, enhanced traceability and monitoring greatly improve the efficiency of sustainability interventions, by targeting resources where they are most needed.
4. Role of Technology and Certifications
Modern technology provides the opportunity to gather a wealth of data on the supply chain. Smartphones and GPS are ubiquitous and inexpensive, allowing documentation of harvesting sites, photos, and the ability to document practices using blockchain-enabled apps. Data capture in the field is almost never perfect, but even relatively modest investments in equipment and training can enable suppliers and buying companies to begin to build up a more detailed picture of their supply chain.
Certifications are also a tool to ensure resin sourcing is meeting a certain standard of practice. Organic certification has been used in many frankincense supply chains, but evidence from Somaliland, where certified organic B. sacra syn. B. carteri oils were found to be heavily contaminated with oil from the visually, geographically, and chemically very distinct B. occulta, suggests that it is not sufficient on its own. FairWild is a much higher standard of practice, incorporating strict environmental and social standards of practices based on the ISSC-MAP standards for wild plant collection, and is considered the gold standard for sustainable wild plant collection. This standard has been used to certify a small amount of frankincense production in Kenya and Somaliland. However, the requirement for annual in-person field site visits by an outside auditor limit the places where it can be used, especially in species where many or most collection sites are either very remote or inaccessible due to security concerns (for instance, in Somaliland and Somalia). In these cases, certifications and technologies like blockchain may be able to work synergistically to collect data in more remote areas and confirm practices against a certification standard.
Role of International Regulation: CITES for Frankincense?
As a result of the increased scrutiny of sustainability challenges in Boswellia supply chains in recent years, there is currently an ongoing review of whether these species meet the criteria for listing under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). CITES is an international agreement that limits trade if species are determined to be under severe threat. Species are classified into three appendices depending on the severity of the threat: Appendix I means no commercial trade, Appendix II requires export permits, and Appendix III requires a certificate of origin. Of course, this assumes that the state of export is capable of effectively implementing the regulations, and that reducing trade will translate into enhanced conservation outcomes. While this may be true in some frankincense range states, there are serious questions about whether it would be appropriate across the board. Many frankincense range states have fragile or limited governance; of the top ten most corrupt countries in the world in 2020 (according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index), four are frankincense range states (Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, Sudan), and only three exporting states rank above 40/100 points (Oman, India, and Burkina Faso). In the case of Somalia, it is currently under a trade suspension and is not able to issue permits at this time. Thus, it begs the question if a listing of Boswellia species in Somaliland or Somalia occurs, would it function as a de facto trade ban? It’s also important to note that while overharvesting is a factor affecting some Boswellia species, trade can also give the trees economic value and thus can in some cases serve to protect them from land conversion, charcoaling, etc. Investigations are currently ongoing as to whether CITES would be an appropriate mechanism for frankincense; in any event, countries and species should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and all impacts should be carefully considered.
Frankincense is a single word used to describe a diverse set of resins that are chemically, ecologically, socially, politically, culturally, and economically distinct. It is difficult to make universal statements about frankincense or its supply chains, as each species should be considered separately to fully understand the context of its production. Although many of these species face a variety of sustainability challenges, trade plays an important role in preserving them, and there are real opportunities and solutions to ensure ethical, sustainable supply chains for these unique trees and the communities that live with and manage them. Regardless of whether the trees are owned individually, communally or government controlled, a strong, fair and ethical community-supplier-buyer relationship is the key to sustainability.
If nothing else, the aim of this article is to encourage all of us outside the countries where frankincense trees grow, and who profit from, buy, use and enjoy these aromatic ancient resins to educate ourselves and pay far more attention to how the resin is harvested, how it reached our hands and who benefited. Purchasers all along the value chain need to ensure maximum direct support to all those who own and rightfully harvest the trees to have the means and incentive to take a long term view and to be able to protect and regenerate these precious and extraordinary trees and their gift to us.
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