Frankincense has a rich cultural and economic history dating back thousands of years - long before its appearance as one of the bible’s most famous birthday presents. It was revered in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, and played a major role in establishing the incense trade route that spanned continents. Yet today, there is a very real threat that this precious natural resource could succumb quietly to the threat of extinction.
The Boswellia tree from which frankincense resin is harvested was once abundant, but is now endangered everywhere it grows. Oman is no exception; despite being one of the best areas for the natural growth of frankincense - where the native Boswellia sacra is said to produce the most luxuriously-scented resin in the world - over-harvesting, damage from livestock and the encroachment of mankind on their natural habitat has rendered the frankincense trees of Oman’s Dhofar mountains less able to reproduce, and more vulnerable to disease and infestation. As a result, the Boswellia sacra has been categorised as ‘near threatened’ on The International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List.
In a bid to reverse the fortunes of Oman’s Boswellia trees, natural and organic skincare company Neal’s Yard Remedies is pioneering a holistic approach to the harvesting, distillation and production of frankincense - one that keeps the traditional methods alive while creating a lasting legacy for the frankincense forests that have been central to Oman’s identity, culture and economy for thousands of years.
The company has committed to planting 5,000 seedlings per year, germinating them from seeds which are collected from organically certified areas known as wadis. The seeds are initially planted in a seedbed and, all being well, germinate under the covered canopy of the nursery. The tiny emergent seedlings are then transferred to a polythene pot in order to begin developing roots, and a year later these seedlings are ready to be planted out into the fields.
Overseeing this bold operation is Dr Salah Ajeeb, who has devoted 30 years of his career at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in Salalah, to propagating Boswellia sacra and learning as much as he can about successfully growing this most precious resource.
“This is a pioneering project for this area,” says Salah. “No one has ever done anything like this before, but frankincense needs to be cared for. The idea itself will encourage others to do the same and it could encourage farmers to do the same by showing how frankincense production can be both sustainable and profitable, as well as demonstrating how to harvest from the trees without damaging them.”
This is no short-term CSR development. Neal’s Yard Remedies’ commitment to sustainably sourcing and ethically managing this fragrant resin dates back to their first ever frankincense product in 1983; Frankincense Nourishing Cream. From Ethiopia to Oman via Somalia and Kenya, the company has been constantly searching for the highest quality, most sustainable source of frankincense.
In December 2017, Neal’s Yard Remedies requested that The Salalah Frankincense Company obtain Ecocert Organic certification for wild frankincense they collect in the Dhofar region of Oman. While costly and time consuming, this was absolutely crucial in terms of verifying the provenance of existing trees. It required the certifiers to go out into the wadis to meticulously review the conditions of the Boswellia sacra, and ensure they were numerous enough to sustainably harvest. The certification exercise led to crucial data-gathering that promotes and facilitates conservation of the Boswellia sacra.
“We’re committed to a ten year project, because that is how long it takes for these trees to grow.” says Susan Curtis, Neal’s Yard Remedies’ Director of Natural Health - and architect of Project Frankincense. “It really is a project based around regeneration and protection. We see it as a two-pronged approach; the first is plantation growing, where the trees are nurtured and cared for in a more controlled environment, which will take the pressure off the species that grows in the wild. The second part of this process is ensuring that the wadis stay populated with Boswellia sacra. You really do need both to sustain this.”
“Our absolute dream for this project is to be acknowledged by the IUCN, that we had somehow helped to shift the situation here,” says Susan. “If the project helped provide a sustainable solution for the future and there was evidence of good regeneration, or we at least helped play a part, well... that would be amazing.”
Anabel Kindersley, co-owner of Neal’s Yard Remedies, says: “Frankincense is something we need to care for and treasure. My hope is that Project Frankincense brings people closer to this beautiful natural ingredient, closer to the land that grows the Boswellia sacra, and closer to those who are keeping these trees - and their traditions - alive.”