Field Notes: Spotlight on Somaliland - Frankincense

Field Notes: Spotlight on Somaliland - Frankincense

It maybe the fact that it grows out of sheer rock faces, or on boulders that rise out of the ground and are peppered with these gnarly limbed trees that give it an alien feel  or maybe it’s just seeing for myself how frankincense will grow where nothing else can that makes this  tree the star of a show that is both remarkable, treacherous and vital in both human history and in Somaliland’s future. 

The resin of frankincense is produced when the papery bark of the tree is cut. It only takes small, shallow scrapes to trigger the trees emergency response which is what produces the resin. The plant heals itself with a thick white-to-yellow sap that forms like golden tears on and around the wound. 

The tree is defending itself from infection and the elements and the resin it produces contains a cocktail of ingredients that are antifungal and antibiotic to help repair it back to health.  It just so happens that these materials smell exquisite!

Once the tears of gum are collected, they are then sold to traders, sometimes exchanging hands five or six times, before ending up either as incense in the Middle East (in particular) or, after being distilled for use in cosmetics, fragrances and as an essential oil around the world.

To see just how this happens I have come to Mogda Muge, high in the hills outside of Erigavo, Somaliland. The area is a part of the famous Cal Madow ecosystem that reaches across the edge of Somaliland’s coast. 

On the map it appears as a smudge of green amidst a sea of desert-like scrub. It’s lusher than anywhere else in Somaliland because it receives regular moisture from sea mists each day. These mists help tip the balance in the favour of the incredible variety of species growing here but Mogda Muge is just one small parcel of the land in this country that produces Frankincense resin for the international market. 

The resin itself we find stored in a small wooden shack. It’s out of season when we visit so really there should be no resin collected at the moment; the dry season is coming to an end and in an ideal world, the trees would be left to rest until the rains start. 

However, we still find a dark room stuffed with fresh resin, the smell rising up and greeting us as we put our heads into the warm dark of the room. Picking up some of the sticky sap it’s warm too; and malleable, different from the dry and tough pieces I’ve seen elsewhere. 

Some of the villagers use the Frankincense resin as an actual chewing gum, putting pieces in their mouths to freshen their breath and to clean their teeth. I take a small piece and try the same; it immediately attaches itself to the back of my front teeth where it remains until I can get back to the hotel to scrub it off. Its flavour, though, is herbal with a green fruitiness that is not at all unpleasant. 


and fragrance frankincense tree


Peppered with scars

Of course, seeing the storage is incredible but seeing the trees and resin for real is why we all came here. Even though the area is less than 40 miles from the main city, it still takes several hours of driving across single lake dirt tracks, sometimes brought to walking pace due to the tough terrain, to get here. It’s worth every bumpy mile to get here but to see the trees you really can only walk to them. 

An elder from the village introduces himself and guides us into the relative wilderness that surrounds us. As we walk, we begin to see the beauty of the land.  At this time of the year, most of the greenery is from the hardier tree; acaias, with their thorny branches, for example, and there are types of aloes and other species I don’t recognise that offer a break from the dusty, rocky ground. 

However, I’m told that when the rains start this place is a verdant paradise; scrub land bushes bursting into life, flowers emerging from nowhere and trees bustling with life. But for now, it has an incredible aesthetic, looking more like a well-groomed rockery garden and less like the hardy limestone escarpment that it is.

It doesn’t take long before we see our first tree. Standing straight out of a large rock, its trunk peppered with scars, its limbs reaching high above us with small tough leaves. 

You can immediately see the damage that has been done through the tapping of resin. Some patches are black and, as we then move on through the rugged landscape, we see other trees where they have been cut too deep, allowing infection into the trunk. 

Sometimes water can collect in the deep cuts, other times it’s just from the sheer amount of cutting which pressures the tree to produce too much resin and weaken itself. Some of the scars are black; a sign we are told that the healing hasn’t occurred adequately.

          "One tree has been cut so often that it has grown holes to keep itself alive; the holes are so large that you can put your hand through them"

Although these trees are clearly resourceful, they are also precious and require care. Unfortunately, they are also the primary resource for the people who live here and trying to encourage someone to forgo an income during the dry season is a difficult conversation. 

It’s a dilemma that, a few years ago, sparked concern when we first heard that as the drought worsened elsewhere in the country, here people were literally beginning to cut away their future. Not out of greed but necessity; resin is their life. 

We are told that people barter with it to afford rice, cooking oil and meat aside from other necessities. When they need money it’s a walk to the forest, a few quick cuts and a wait of three days for the resin to accumulate. However, not every tree is damaged beyond repair, there are plenty that have been treated correctly and in fact, plans are under way to establish several nursery sites where these trees can be propagated and helped along their way a bit. This should benefit both people and the ecosystem.

Behind the village houses there is a small and carefully fenced space where the cuttings from a healthy Boswellia (Frankincense) tree are being carefully grown as the next generation of resin-rich trees for the community. 

We sit with one of the larger landowners of the region, his family title giving him access to the harvesting of resin beqeathed by his ancestors and his own legacy for his future generations. We pick a spot behind the informal settlement that is a relatively recent permanent dwelling for the community here. 

The rock we sit on looks down into the valley where yet more cloud rises and falls. We drink tea so sweet it’s almost impossible to finish. We chat about life here versus life in the UK and about the fact they have a line of sight on 20 generations before who had always handled this land and about the fact that for 20 more, something would need to be done to allow life to continue here. 

The day is ending and as we pack up to leave, the sun breaks through the low cloud. We are inundated with rich, unctuous resin as gifts to take away. The smell fills the truck as we wave our goodbyes and thank them for their hospitality. 

As we leave, it’s time to dwell on how best to answer the question of providing livelihoods against the health and wellbeing of the environment on which they depend. In fact, I reflect, that maybe this is the question we are all asking at the moment and on the fact that here, you can see it so clearly; the black scars of our hungry demands clearly marked on a tree that has given us gifts for as long as we can collectively remember.

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