5 years after my first visit with the Samburu Frankincense harvesters in Northern Kenya, things are finally coming together. We now have 2 groups of Samburu women harvesters who need to sell their Frankincense neglecta resins and 2 special wholesalers/importers working with us to bring them to the North American and European markets. All that is needed now are customers.
Healthy trees and a sustainable harvest
Frankincense Neglecta is a Frankincense species endemic to Eastern Africa. it is not the prettiest Frankincense resin but makes up for its looks with a unique fragrance and sustainability. It is theorized that the fragrant black resin forms only in response to the attack of borer beetles. This means there are fewer concerns about the impact of overharvesting on the species. In fact, recent focus groups in Northern Kenya reported the trees were thriving.
The Samburu Women
The Samburu tribe are indigenous to Northern Kenya. Daily life of the tribe revolves around livestock which the men own and trade. The women’s days are taken up with domestic activities, caring for children and the elderly. The women have no income except for what they can produce or collect for themselves.
Gifts from the land
Besides milk and the meat from goats, cows and sheep which are slaughtered on special occasions, most of their food and medicine comes from visits to the local village market gatherings where men come to trade and sell livestock and women buy or trade for provisions and medicine. Resin collection from a variety of trees represents the bulk of many women’s income. Having a reliable and fair price for their resins is critical.
A stable market in the West
This is where we all come in. With enough of a demand for their resins, we can bring a number of Samburu resins from remote and isolated areas to the West, guaranteeing the women a fair price and a stable market for their resins. Frankincense neglecta is one of 5 resins the Samburu women collect.
What about the sustainability of Frankincense?
At the recent Global Frankincense Alliance online workshop, I noticed the striking difference in tree health, collection methods, and sustainability of the harvest between the different cultures and collector communities. From Africa to Arabia to India, each tree species, harvesting community and culture had its own unique story. In some areas, Frankincense tree populations are doing well, and in other areas the Frankincense trees are declining quickly and need our intervention.
The relationship of communities to the land and the trees
The relationship of harvesters and their communities with the land, the trees and the resins struck me as intrinsically tied to the wellbeing of the trees. In Northern Ethiopia, Frankincense Papyrifera trees are at risk of extinction in another few decades. Besides their natural enemies, insects, disease, grazing animals and wildfires, they are cut down for charcoal and to make room for endlessly expanding agricultural plots. Add to this stress improper harvesting techniques and overharvesting one can see why the trees don’t have long.
Cultural checks on overharvesting
On the other hand, the Samburu tribe has a unique relationship with the land, and harming trees in any way is frowned upon. In fact, cutting down and burning trees for charcoal is common practice across Africa, but something one will, if ever, rarely see in Samburu county. This is due to their reverent relationship with their deity, the Nature God/Goddess N’kai, who resides in the mountains, the trees, lakes and animals. One could say N’kai protects the Samburu Frankincense trees, making sure they are not harmed.
Blanket restrictions on trade in Frankincense
At the Global Frankincense Alliance Workshop, I discovered that CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) is considering listing all Frankincense trees At-Risk or Endangered and establishing restrictions on the trade of Frankincense resin. While there is no doubt that in some areas of the world, some of the species are declining from both natural and human causes, it is also clear that some species are doing quite well and general restrictions of the trade of Frankincense would have a major financial impact on tens of thousands of poor rural people whose livelihood depends on the collection and sale of Frankincense species resin.
The harvester communities are the stewards of our resources
The harvester communities around the world are ideally positioned to steward our resources in these remote areas. Healthy communities with healthy relationships with the land and trees seem, in my mind, to be major factors in a sustainable harvest and healthy ecosystem. They should be acknowledged, encouraged and supported in every way possible. They can be the anchor that holds back erosion of the landscape and ensures healthy populations of all our medicinal and aromatic plants around the world for decades to come.
You can find fresh sustainable Samburu Frankincense neglecta in the shop.
A very special thank you to all my customers who through their purchases have supported my trips to visit the harvesters and especially to Sue at Pipal Ltd. and Andre & Maria at mantisconnexions Ltd. in Kenya, whose ongoing support, dedication to the Samburu people, resources and connections on the ground in Kenya have brought this project to fruition.
To learn more about what can be done to protect and conserve our medicinal and aromatic plants visit https://airmidinstitute.org/