Used for millennia as a perfume, cure-all plant medicine and once prized more than gold, frankincense which was an integral part of Omani culture and a mainstay of the farmers, appears in trouble.
Studies warn that the alluringly musky scent of this Unesco-inscribed Boswellia sacra trees thrive in the terrain of Oman’s southern province of Dhofar are under threat of extinction.
“The trees that produce the raw material of frankincense may disappear”, warns a report by Brazil-Arab News Agency (ANBA), adding, “with older trees dying fast and no young ones coming up to replace them, the frankincense woodlands will soon disappear”.
“There is an imminent danger of ‘commercial extinction’ of the incense production, as we’ve shown in published studies. And by that we mean that viability of the incense production and extraction from the natural forest could not be economically viable anymore in the medium term, in some decades”, Peter Groenendyk, professor at the Department of Plant Biology in the State University of Campinas, told ANBA.
Over the millennia, frankincense has been a symbol of Arab countries like the Sultanate of Oman and an economic mainstay of farmers in Somalia and Sudan. The sap is the raw material of incense, but its trees are endangered due to overexploitation.
Virtually all Omani frankincense is harvested from Boswellia sacra trees that grow wild in the searing Dhofar desert, and are owned by the local tribes. The harvest begins in April as rising temperatures cause the sap to flow more easily.
The plants are also grown in a few countries in the Middle East and Africa like Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia. In Ethiopia, traditional sapping methods are used. They belong to different species from the same genus, Boswellia”, Groenendyk said in the interview.
From the trunk of trees native to the Middle East and North Africa, a sap is tapped. This fluid, which hardens and becomes a resin, is used to manufacture the incense that is burned in religious celebrations and in the homes of those who love its aroma.
The sap is called frankincense and came to prominence in countries like Oman, which is called the Land of Frankincense on the United Nations World Heritage List.
“The one that grows in the Middle East, which probably has the one with the more ancient or classic exploration is Boswellia sacra. But the main source of incense nowadays is Boswellia papyrifera that grows in different countries in Africa,” he opined in the interview.
Traditional sapping methods are used in countries like Ethiopia, a country Groenendyk has visited. There he saw the use of Mngaf, a hatchet that opens small areas on the tree barks.
“As a reaction to these injuries, the trees produce sap to basically seal the injury. After drying, the resin is collected to be used as incense. I believe that extraction in other places is done similarly,” he explained, adding that some regions in Brazil have trees from the same family, Burseraceae, whose sap is collected in a similar manner.
“In Oman, we saw that the populations of Boswellia are declining and that this is a problem that takes place throughout the species distribution,” said Groenendyk, who has also an article published in media outlets like the Journal of Applied Ecology.
Furthermore, the researcher ponders that resin extraction is not the main issue, as the loss of habitat and the conversion of forest to crops or grazing lands can be a larger threat. Such issues have reduced the populations of Boswellia sacra, the “original” incense species, in such a way that there are no more products in the Arabian Peninsula.
The species has also been included as an endangered species on the list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the researcher points out.
In a message sent to his colleague Groenendyk, researcher Frans Bongers, who visited Oman earlier this year talked about what he saw in the country.
The ANBA reports that Bongers visited several regions in the country to carry out a survey of Boswellia and revealed that there are still sites with a good or reasonable number of trees. There are places where these plants become food for camels. But in more remote areas where access is more difficult, there are still seemingly healthy trees.
The researcher says that the resin extraction is still not careful enough, which can affect the plant populations.
The beginning of the use of resin for manufacturing incense is unclear, but the activity is at least millennial. “It was already used in classical times and there were caravans of incense coming from the Arabian Peninsula to Greece and Rome,” the researcher says, pointing out that there is another record in the Bible, which mentions incense as one of the gifts from the Magi to baby Jesus.
What is certain is that the resin is economically and socially important in the countries that manufacture it. “For incense harvesters and local populations, it is a major source of income support. Frankincense is used in the production of cosmetics and perfumes, as well as religious and cultural rituals, like the coffee ceremony,” the researcher stressed.
In Brazil, some companies import the resin to manufacture incense, as is the case of Milagros, which produces 35 types of incense from resins of different origins, including Arab countries like Oman, Sudan and Somalia.