Can Frankincense, Myrrh Save African Woodlands?

//
A frankincense tree. Credit: Corbis

The arid woodlands of Ethiopia that

produce frankincense and myrrh are being gradually cut and replaced

with croplands, even though the ancient aromatic resins are more

reliably profitable, report Ethiopian researchers.

In the northern Amhara region of

Ethiopia the dry woodlands are rich in Boswellia and

Commiphora trees, the dried sap, or resins from which are

called frankincense and myrrh.

Whether for incense, perfumes or other

uses, these resins have been traded for about 5,000 years and are a

growing export product for the Ethiopia.

PHOTOS: Oh Christmas Tree!: A History in Photos

"Nonetheless, deforestation of dry

forests persists and this is because farmers are not supported by

market development," explain Mulugeta Lemenih and coauthors, of the

Forest Research Center and International Water Management Institute

in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as well as Wageningen University in the

Netherlands.

VIDEO: Monitoring Climate Change

In other words, the local farmers, most

of whom are not originally from the Amhara region, have no interest

in or incentives for frankincense and myrrh production.

"The reasons

for the lack of involvement of farmers in the frankincense business

are many," the researchers said. They include lack of awareness and

experience in the business, restrictive policies, the hard work

involved in tapping trees for resin and access to frankincense and

myrrh markets.

"In fact, the Amhara regional policy prohibits

individual farmers from producing and selling frankincense, unless

they are organized into cooperatives."

NEWS: Frankincense May Be Doomed

The Ethiopian researchers did a

detailed analysis of the costs and revenue of the tree resins and

other non-timber forest products (like honey, firewood and grazing)

and compared it to the value of nearby crops of sesame and cotton.

They found that while farmers can make a living with the crops, the

forest products are actually more reliably profitable, year after

year. Their study is being published in the February, 2013, issue of the

Journal of Arid Environments.

The economic approach taken by the

researchers could, however, backfire if their ultimate aim is to

preserve and restore the arid woodlands, explains ecologist Truman

Young of the University of California at Davis. Young has done range

land restoration research in Kenya.

"…This sort of analysis will only

exacerbate the problem, by perpetuating the myth that the 'purpose'

of the natural world is the fulfill the 'needs' of people," wrote

via email. "In Kenya, thousands of farmers

were moved off of government land (once and future forest) in the

last few years. Coming up with greater incentives not to

do this sort of thing is counter-productive."