Somaliland fosters trade in frankincense and myrrh

HARGEISA, Somaliland — In the mist forests of the Golis Mountains in northern Somalia, clouds roll in off the sea. Up and over the mountain ridges, they evaporate into the desert air.

There, in the southern slopes, stumpy trees grow as if anchored to the mountainside by some unknown force. From the hand-slashed bark of these stubborn, spiky trees leak droplets of a gum that hardens into a chewy resin.

These aromatic gums are the biblical frankincense and myrrh. Harvested and dried, they have been highly valued trade items for thousands of years. The gums are simply processed and exported. They look like dirty little stones, and they find their way out of Somalia's wild north and into European perfumes, Christian churches, Arabian households and Chinese medicines.

Somaliland is the northern territory of Somalia that functions largely independent from the war-torn south, although it is not officially recognized as an autonomous country. The production and trade in the aromatic gums of frankincense and myrrh is an important economic activity for Somaliland.

Guelleh Osman Guelleh, general manager of Beyomol Natural Gums in Hargeisa, told GlobalPost that he exports 330,000 pounds of frankincense and myrrh every year. Much of his product is distilled abroad for use in perfumes.

“The main market for us is in southern France, in Grasse. Ninety percent of what we sell goes there to be used in perfumes,” said Guelleh who studied in the United Kingdom before returning to Somaliland in 1999 to set up his gum exporting business.

The only processing done in Somaliland itself is sorting and grading the gums according to size and color but Guelleh hopes that will change, one day.

“It’s a technical issue because it is not a simple process to distill for the perfumery industry. You need to show reliability of quality and consistency of supply, you need to be able to process the same way the French do,” he said.

Nevertheless, exporting the unrefined gums alone is a profitable enterprise earning Guelleh up to $60,000 a year. Overall Somaliland's economy is estimated to be worth $50 million, of which 95 percent is exports of livestock.

Guelleh’s business operates out of Somaliland, where successive governments of the self-declared independent province have a laissez-fair policy toward private enterprise that borders on disregard.

“Somaliland is fantastic for doing business because the government keeps out of the private sector,” said Guelleh enthusiastically. Regulations are minimal, taxes non-existent. “Somaliland allows you to do your business and they don’t interfere.”

It was not always this way. During the years when Somalia was under the military rule of Mohamed Siad Barre, the government-owned Frankincense and Gums Trading Agency nationalized the sector and the crop was part of the corrupt state bureaucracy. But since the collapse of Barre’s regime and Somaliland’s declaration of independence in 1991, gums, like the rest of the economy, have been making a slow recovery.

Myrrh is extracted from the Commiphora myrrha tree that grows on the lower slopes. Frankincense comes from the Boswellia carteri tree that grows at higher altitudes. Both are used in herbal medicines, essential oils and perfume, not to mention religious ceremonies. Christians often incorporate frankincense and myrrh into traditions, given the fact that the Three Wise Men are said to have offered them to baby Jesus.

Lesser known in the Western world is "maidi" a type of frankincense that is extracted from the Boswellia frereana tree and is popular in the Arab world as a naturally scented chewing gum. This high quality gum — pure white in color — is sought after and sells for $12 per kilogram, six times the price of the best inedible frankincense.

The trees grow on farms owned by smallholders who cut the bark and allow the gum to seep out and harden over days. The gooey nuggets are harvested over weeks and piled into 90-pound sacks that are loaded onto donkeys and camels for the rocky journey to a nearby village.

The harvested gums are then laid on plastic sheeting in mud huts to dry while the farmers wait for a truck that will take the dried resins to the main gum market at Burao where they are traded and processed for export. From Burao most gums are driven by road to Somaliland’s Berbera port for export to Europe or the Arabian Peninsula.

Other regions where frankincense and myrrh are produced include parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and the Arab peninsula.

The woodlands on the northern slopes of the Golis Mountains where the trees grow are a rare sight in this arid, semi-desert country watered by just two rivers, both far from the south of the country.

“The mist forests of the Golis Mountains of the northern regions are the only true forest areas of Somalia and are important centers of biological diversity and species edemism,” according to a study of the area by the United Nations Environment Program.

But they are under threat from man-made changes both local and global, endangering the trees that have bled frankincense and myrrh for thousands of years.

The worldwide problem of climate change here thins the clouds of nourishing moisture that blow up from the Gulf of Aden, meaning there is less and less water to nourish the trees. Meanwhile deforestation is also taking its toll as trees are chopped down for charcoal to supply the growing fuel needs of a rapidly expanding population.

Resin producer Guelle, however, remains optimistic: "This is a good business and one with a great future," he said. "It may take some time but my dream is to begin distilling the gums, then things will really take off."