The ancient trade in frankincense starts here in the remote hills of Somaliland.
Frankincense, the dried sap of the frankincense tree, has been a valued commodity for millennia. Egyptian pharaohs traded for the gum, and Christians know frankincense as one of the gifts the three wise men brought to the baby Jesus, according to the New Testament.
Since those biblical times, people in the Cal Madow Mountains have tapped the trees for their resin, which is burned as sweet incense.
Frankincense remains a popular Christmastime gift, but it is also used in churches, French perfumes and cosmetics. Much of the world’s supply comes from Somaliland, including at least one of the most sought-after species.
Demand puts harvesters at risk
It is one of the largest sectors of the economy in this small breakaway republic in the Horn of Africa. And increased demand has threatened the ancient trade as men in Somaliland risk their lives to harvest the resin in greater and greater quantities.
Mohamed Ahmed Ali produces at least 7,000 kilograms of raw gum each year from land he owns with a brother in the shadow of the mountains.
“We have been doing this for more than 100 years,” Ali said. “My father inherited it from his father, and I inherited it from my father.”
Using metal hand tools, Ali scrapes away pieces of bark from frankincense trees so the sap inside seeps out and dries.
During tapping seasons, men live in caves in the mountains to be close to the forests.
But tapping the trees can be dangerous. They often grow on cliffs, and the men have no safety gear such as ropes or harnesses. They risk deadly falls if branches snap or trees break off the cliff face.
Mohamud Jama Hersi harvests frankincense in a canyon near the village of Gudmo. He said a friend of his died last year in such a fall.
He said the harvesters are always afraid. Every year, during the harvest, either someone is seriously hurt or dies. They do it because their families depend on that tree. They have no other option, he added.
Trees suffer as well
The increased demand for frankincense gum is also putting increased pressure on the trees.
Shukri Ismail, Somaliland’s minister of environment, said people cut the trees too much and tap them year-round.
“Tapping quite a lot will kill the trees,” she said, “and that is what they are doing at the moment in order to earn. … They used to tap it twice a year, or once a year, but it became frequent now, and now that kills the trees and kills the forest in general.”
Frankincense forests in surrounding countries are already severely degraded.
For the trade to continue in Somaliland for millennia to come, more will have to be done to preserve its trees.