How can I say this? I love frankincense! It is a sacred tree and its resin produces an amazing essential oil!
But, several frankincense species are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. That means, its populations are dwindling at a concerning rate. Thus, the more we use it, the more we threaten its future on this planet.
In recent years, as the demand on frankincense essential oil has skyrocketed, the tree has been grossly overharvested. I have decided to help stop this vicious cycle by not buying frankincense products listed as threatened. In the meantime, botanists are researching more effective harvesting methods and ways to improve populations.
I know this sounds like an overly-conservative way to deal with frankincense population concerns. But, I believe if we just give the tree a break for a few years, than the tree will give back to us again when it is ready. I believe in karma – do good by the tree and it will do good by you.
There are many other essential oils that can be used instead, depending on the purpose. I would be happy to give alternative recommendations!
Pictured: The Tears of Frankincense Resin
Also called Olibanum, Boswellia sacra, is classified as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List (2018). In some areas, like Oman, it is “Critically Endangered” (Garzuglia, 2006). Several Boswellia species located in Yemen have a dangerously declining habitat and were listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2008, such as B. ameero, B. bullata, B. dioscoridis, B. elongate, B. nana, B. popoviana, and B. socotrana (Burfield, 2009 & Miller, 2004).
This tree resin has been a highly valuable plant extract since ancient times, with the Horn of Africa trading it as a lucrative commodity for 2,000 years. It is harvested by precisely cutting into the bark and allowing the resin to slowly ooze out and then solidify; with the cuttings repeated two or three times in the five month harvest season (DeCarlo & Saleem, 2014).
Somililand, which is not technically a country, is an area where frankincense is especially overharvested and under protected. Here, the resin is purchased from the harvester by a middleman for an extremely low price, then sold in the Middle East for a much higher price to an international market. Thus, the Somali farmer is exploited with no government control of frankincense sales. Rising food prices and scarce opportunity for other jobs in the area has a negative effect on the trees with illegal harvesting beyond the season and excessive cutting of the bark. The price to pay for this valuable resin overharvesting is the life of the trees. Further, drought conditions and no government to protect the trees is an issue, but designating the forest area as “Protected” would help the trees (DeCarlo & Saleem, 2014).
An additional issue associated with frankincense is the exploitation of poor people for labor. It is The Horn of Africa’s biggest export after livestock, with an estimated 10,000 families financially dependent on the crop (Farah, 1994). The women process the resin after it is harvested by the men, typically sitting on a concrete floor 12 hours a day, and making 50 cents to two dollars a day (DeCarlo & Saleem, 2014). Working with Fair Trade organizations to have frankincense certified may help set a fair price for harvesters and sustain the trees (DeCarlo & Saleem, 2014). Creating a harvesters’ cooperative will further promote fair trade, reduce underbidding, and set sustainability standards (DeCarlo & Saleem, 2014).
For more information on the referenced citations and other threatened plant species, click here: Threatened Essential Oil Species.
A person who performs good Karma (deeds) is always held in high esteem
–Rig Veda quotes
Here is a good read: The Disappearing Frankincense Forest
By: Kathy Sadowski, MS in Aromatherapy, RA (ARC), Professional NAHA and AIA Member, LMT