Letters from the land of Punt

I did not expect this blog to receive much attention except from those who might want to work with oleoresins or buy some Frankincense from my shop.

However, within a year of publishing it, it has grown into a homing beacon for Somali and Somaliland Frankincense harvesters who have found a voice that echos their frustration at the disparities and inequalities of the trade.

Over the past year I have received many messages and emails from Somali harvesters, often deeply moving and sincere expressions of the desperation felt by a culture with their back against a wall.

The traditional Frankincense harvesters tend their hereditary trees and sell their precious resins within a status quo that leaves them locked in poverty while others reap the profits and sell as their own, what has been their unique heritage for thousands of years.

Now, with the voices of the harvesters contributing, my monologue is becoming a dialogue. And with dialogue between people anything is possible. The question is, what needs to happen?

Queen Hatsheput’s expedition to the Land of Punt. Returning with living Frankincense and Myrrh trees.

Somalia is considered by most, the ancient land of Punt. Referred to thousands of years ago by the Egyptians, and other civilizations as the home of Frankincense and Myrrh. Somalia is the only place in the world where the rare and valuable Frankincense Frereana, know as Maydi, can be found in abundance.

All Somali Frankincense is bought invariably by middlemen, often from desperate harvesters who are willing to barter for bags of rice at heavily inflated prices just to guarantee their family’s sustenance for the year. Poor harvesters have been known to borrow money from middlemen ahead of the harvest to make ends meet, only to return the loan twofold in precious resins. These are only a couple of representative stories I have heard from different sources that reflect the current state of the harvesters in the country. There are many more to share.

Queen Hatsheput's expedition to the Land of Punt. Returning with living Frankincense and Myrrh trees.
Queen Hatsheput’s expedition to the Land of Punt.

From west of the Somali Puntland through the independent state of Somaliland we find much of our world’s Frankincense and Myrrh trees. Often other, more developed countries across the gulf who can not grow enough for their own market demand, purchase these resins at rock bottom prices from harvesters who have no one else to sell to. They make excellent profits and market the resins and essential oils as their own.

Decades of conflict have isolated all but the boldest western buyers from the area leading to a long chain of middlemen and money-making exchanges before we see any of these precious resins or essential oils in the western world.  The harvesters see a disproportionately small amount of this profit.

These are the traditional stewards of some of our world’s rarest aromatics and medicinals. There is no one in the world better positioned, trained, or with the proper incentive to preserve these precious resources. This is an ideal opportunity to move to a different paradigm of sustainable world ecology and commerce, but first we must recognize that the most elegant and effective way to sustain our world’s natural resources is to support those that already do so. The livelihood of these traditional resin harvesters rests entirely on the well-being of these trees and the time proven methods of harvesting.

The harvesters need an open and “Fair trade” market, where they can sell directly to buyers, dispense with middlemen and reclaim the ancient and revered name of  Frankincense from the Land of Punt.

Queen Hatsheput's expedition to the Land of Punt. Returning with living Frankincense and Myrrh trees.
Queen Hatsheput’s expedition to the Land of Punt. Returning with living Frankincense and Myrrh trees.

The sought after and esteemed “King of Frankincense”,  Maydi, or Frankincense Frereana, also known as Coptic Frankincense, is much rarer than B. Sacra/Carterii and only grows abundantly in Somalia and neighboring Somaliland with a smattering of trees east to Kenya and perhaps west to Yemen. (See Maydi the king of Frankincense”). It is coveted in Arabian countries as a high-end natural chewing gum, special occasion incense and medicine. We in the west are the last to see it due to its extraordinary value in the East. It gets no credit as being the pride of Puntland or exclusive to Somalia. Nor do the harvesters reap the rewards they should for one of the world’s rarest resources.

Frankincense Frereana oleoresin, a rare and sought after commodity.
Frankincense Frereana oleoresin, a rare and precious commodity.

This Blog has taken a direction of its own and I don’t know where this dialogue will lead. There is obvious room for improvement in the trade of fragrant and medicinal oleoresins both in ethics and sustainability. There are likely  more voices to come, and who knows, there might even be some change in the wind.

I’ll keep you posted.




  1. One is researching into Somali herbs and plants to make one understand their herbal medicinal origins over the centuries from the point of view of the local people and the understanding of the internal logic of a particular social theory and practice that of the pastoralists and clans of Somalia.

  2. Greetings, Dan –

    Like you, I believe that the best way to manage our most precious resources is to support those who are already doing so.

    As just one example, I attended a Whale Symposium at UC Irvine back in the late 1970s, when my intention was still to spend a life largely at sea as a whale researcher. I met a number of the most amazing researchers at the time, including the wonderful Floyd Durham, PhD, curator of the marine mammal collection at the L.A. County Museum of Science and Industry, with whom I sat for the duration of the conference.

    At the time, I was vehemently opposed to the ongoing program of aboriginal whaling, feeling it detrimental to the ongoing health and well-being of the California Grey Whale population, and making them vulnerable in the northernmost part of their migration, despite their protection along the rest of the West Coast. Floyd Durham, by contrast, worked directly with the Eskimo and Aleut hunters, learning immeasurably from them, and helping them to protect their rights to their sacred aboriginal hunt.

    Fast forward a number of years, and at least in part as a result of the great care of the aboriginal hunters, the grey whale population had more than tripled. Floyd Durham was right and I was wrong. The few whales taken in aboriginal whaling were not detrimental to the grey whale population as a whole, they were careful never to take whales with calves, and the information they gathered during the hunts proved invaluable to whale researchers.

    Now of course all whales are in trouble, due to our ongoing idiocy as a species in using the earth and her oceans as an inexhaustible dumping ground, not to mention ongoing radiation from Fukushima, but none of that goes back to the Eskimo and Aleut hunters.

    Regarding frankincense, you say your blog has already been found by a number of the Somali gatherers, who are already using you as a sounding board for their grievances against the middlemen and the unfairness of the frankincense trade.

    Have you considered helping the Somali gatherers directly, by helping them to set up an online marketplace themselves, where they could sell directly to the public, bypassing the middlemen entirely? It would be entirely reasonable for you to accept a small percentage for setting it up and maintaining the marketplace, It could help them to finally get a fair price for their precious resource, enable them to keep the majority of the profit for themselves, and help to strengthen their communities.

    This may well be the best way to help them make a better living, give them the resources to protect and propagate their trees, not to mention giving them a real say in their own future. I have no doubt that the Fair Trade community can and will assist in making it happen in a way that is best for all. I hope that you will at least consider the possibility.

    1. Thank you for sharing your invaluable experiences and insights! Your comment is timely, inspiring, and resonates deeply with the scenario I find myself in. The arrangement you speak of, was suggested a short while ago by a co-op of Frankincense harvesters in Somalia.
      Having spent my life as an artist, not a businessperson, I struggled a bit getting my head around the role and wondered if I was the best person for the job.
      After reading your comment and sitting with it for a few days, I have entered into a dialogue with the harvesters to establish a direct market for their resins.
      I’m not sure of the details and logistics yet, but I have a feeling we will sort them out as we go along.
      With gratitude for your input and support.

      1. Hey Dan,

        My heart goes out to all of the harvesters who shortchanged ruthlessly for their hard work. Simply Unreal! I’m not a retailer, but I would certainly support their cause, purchase what I can if a direct market is put into place, and tell my friends too!!!

        Brightest Blessings to you Dan! 🙂


  3. Thank you Dan I believe western world will recognize Somali frankincense and the importance of fair trade

  4. Do you think it would be helpful to contact people who are involved with other fair trade practices such as the production of shea butter and argan oil to see how those legal parameters could be applied to frankincense production? Building awareness of the issue is crucial and you’re doing that with this blog. Very important work. Thank you!

    1. Maggie, I think you were reading my mind,,or I yours! I had just finished a couple of hours of researching fair trade organizations, guidelines and projects when your comment came in. I’m not sure where to go with it now, but I think you are right and I should have a closer look at how some model fair trade industries function. I would like to enter the conversation with a clear idea of how it can best work for everyone, and the conversation is already unfolding with the harvesters and community around them. Thank you so much for your input! It always feels good to know you are there on the sidelines.

      1. Anything I can do to help, just let me know! Also, you might consider contacting Trygve Harris, the owner of Enfleurage in NYC, an EO supplier. She is currently living in Oman where she is producing frankincense extractions.

    1. Dan, Knowledge is power. Thanks for telling it like it is. With conscious effort, maybe we can help to re-direct the energies and to reposition the harvesters in order for them to glean more reward for their honest efforts. All the Best, Julie

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