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Frankincense, Oman’s ‘white gold,’ loses its lustre in a modernizing nation

Ali Albrami stands by a frankincense tree in Wadi Dawkah, Oman, near the mountains where he grew up. Cultivating the aromatic tree resin is a family tradition for him, but only a part-time occupation. 'The trees will be here to harvest forever,' he says, 'and there will always be people to harvest them.'

Meghan Davidson Ladly/The Globe and Mail

Ali al-Brami knows these trees as if they were his children. He has been coming to Wadi Dawkah park in the desert north of Salalah, a city in the south of Oman, since he was a boy, learning from his father how to cut the bark – but not too deep – so that the sap pools. He has developed patience, waiting weeks, checking, then making new incisions and waiting again. He loves and respects these gnarled branches, but they no longer define his identity the way they once did.

In this remote corner of Oman, the harvesting of frankincense continues, but as the country modernizes, this historic trade – and the people connected to it – face new challenges.

“They call it white gold,” said Mr. al-Brami, gesturing at a fresh slit in the bark. Behind him lies an arid landscape dotted with wild trees, some more than 400 years old. The brown- and olive- hued expanse melds into a hot haze of sky.

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Twenty-five species of frankincense trees thrive along the coasts of the Arabian Sea, the Horn of Africa and Western India, but only four produce saleable frankincense, and only one – Boswellia sacra flueckiger – is indigenous to Oman. Though frankincense is harvested in Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen and Sudan, Omanis insist their species of tree produces the finest product and they have a long history – and mythology – surrounding its superiority.

But now, over-harvesting, livestock grazing and diversification of the economy all challenge the future of this symbolic crop. Frankincense retains cultural significance for Omanis, but the trade on which that significance is built must now transition and adapt or face becoming obsolete.

“It’s part of our culture,” explains Mohsin al-Amri, project manager and researcher with the Environmental Society of Oman. “When visiting Salalah, the first thing a visitor does should be to see the frankincense trees. They are for all of the people in Salalah.” Frankincense – or luban as it in known in the Arabic dialect spoken in Dhofar region – permeates Omani civilization.

Emerging sap dries to produce beads of frankincense on a tree at the Wadi Dawqah plantation in Oman, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Frankincense is used throughout Oman in perfumes, soaps, ice cream and traditional medicine. Omanis use it for funeral and birth rituals, and for beauty products. Its distinct musk odour lingers in households and shops where Omanis burn it as incense, and byproducts from the resin can be found everywhere from the souk to the country’s main airport. Pregnant women chew it for the health of their unborn children and water infused with the resin is taken to treat colds and upset stomachs.

It remains a traditional industry – particularly in Dhofar – with many citizens continuing to be employed in the harvesting and transport of frankincense, as well as commercial sales. “Now with black gold [oil] there is less of a market than there was before,” said 40-year-old guide and Salalah-native Khalid Alshanfari. “It’s not like in ancient times, but we still use it and export.”

Frankincense within a national context is more of a cultural, rather than economic, staple, but for Dhofar it remains a significant industry.

There are four grades of resins, and the premium one – hoojri or al-hawjri – can sell for as much as 38 Omani riel (roughly $128) a kilogram. The market price is determined by colour, texture and size of the pieces.

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Frankincense: A visual guide

Learn more below about the different grades of frankincense, how it's harvested and where the trees grow in Oman.

But, lately, another factor has been causing chaos in pricing: availability.

A study examining the Boswellia sacra trees within the Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve in Dhofar, found a steep decline in the density of the trees – as much as 85 per cent over the past 20 years. The average frankincense production in the reserve’s southern valleys, meanwhile, was 3.3 kilograms a tree annually, compared with a previous 10 kilograms a tree. While drought (and to a lesser degree, camel grazing) was largely blamed for the reserve’s tree decline, it is over-harvesting that worries Mr. al-Amri. Some citizens, such as Mr. al-Amri, feel that the tree populations are declining because less experienced workers are damaging them by forgoing traditional Omani harvesting techniques.

Mabrukah Abbid, 60 years old and a Salalah native, has been selling her homemade lotions, perfumes and all grades of frankincense for 21 years here. She considers the other women at the souk her family. She says business is better now than decades ago because of tourists. Westerners come during winter, but they purchase less – out of ten people, maybe one would buy. The bulk of Ms. Abbid’s sales occur in the summer high season, when Arab visitors come. Then, her stall is open daily from 8 a.m. to midnight, and she frequently sells out of stock.

Despite the increase in tourists, however, Ms. Abbid has noticed a societal shift and senses the impermanence of her occupation. People have less time to roam the souk. When asked if her daughters will take over her shop, Ms. Abbid – whose raspy voice has been constant – is silent and shakes her head. Ms. Abbid did not go to university, but her daughters are graduates. “The new generation now,” she said, “they have many options – they have good educations and the option to work with the government. Some of them are nurses, teachers, doctors – and they get busy with the new jobs.”

Mr. al-Brami, too, has observed the transition of Omani society. He grew up, and still lives, in the mountains surrounding Wadi Dawkah. His devotion to the frankincense trees is cultural rather than financial. Frankincense is embedded in the traditions of his family and – while he earns an income from harvesting – it is only a part-time occupation. He has a permanent job doing administrative work for the government of Salalah. “It’s a very hard job – few people still do the harvest, or they do it part time,” Mr. Alshanfari said. “The old relations are done, and the new generations are between the modern life and the culture.”

In 2010, the Environmental Society of Oman (ESO) began its Frankincense Research and Conservation initiative, which involved studying 180 frankincense trees in four different locations in Dhofar. The aim of the study was to determine the best practices for harvesting – how much tapping would produce a sustainable yield while also preserving the tree’s health. The 2017 report revealed that tapping smaller trees resulted in those trees being unable to produce successfully germinating seeds. It also found that the adverse affects of harvesting affected tree health for more than three years after the last tapping cycle. The study’s findings prompted the launch of awareness campaigns reaching out to farmers to promote sustainable harvesting techniques.

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Mr. al-Brami, however, is optimistic. His blue eyes scan the expanse of foliage and arid soil stretching out to the horizon. “The trees will be here to harvest forever,” he said, “and there will always be people to harvest them.”




Making sense of frankincense: A visual guide

As the tree population dwindles, there are fears

for the future of frankincense. The trees at the

Wadi Dawkah Natural Park produce this resin

that many Omanis consider the best

anywhere in the world.

IRAN

Persian Gulf

QATAR

UAE

SAUDI

ARABIA

OMAN

Wadi Dawkah

Natural Park

DHOFAR

REGION

Arabian

Sea

300

0

YEMEN

Salalah

KM

WHERE THE TREES GROW

Just north of Salalah, the park is about 5 square

kilometres in size.

0

1

KM

Salalah-Thamrit-

Muscat Highway

31

Salalah

(40 kms

south)

Boundary

of the

wadi bed

Locations

of the oldest

frankincense

trees

WADI DAWKAH

NATURAL PARK

WADI DAWKAH

NATURAL PARK

THE FRANKINCENSE TREE

There are about 5,000 Boswellia sacra trees

in the park

HARVESTING THE SAP

Small cuts are made with a special knife into the bark of the tree causing a white liquid to appear which hardens on the surface. This is a

protective sap to help heal the tree after a wound has been made.

The cut is left and then days later the harvester returns and scrapes off the white resin and cuts the tree a second time. The first resin is not useable. The resin becomes more aromatic and valuable with each cut as there are greater quantities of essential oil.

The tree can be cut multiple times and each time more resin is produced. But the trees need to recover from this process so that they can continue to produce the treasured sap.

Wound

Sap

GRADES OF FRANKINCENSE

There are four grades of frankincense. With each

cut of the tree the grade improves or generally

gets more opaque. Inland frankincense tends to

be better quality than the coastal areas where

the greater moisture results in more impurites.

The sap darkens with age.

(Below are some color examples

and roughly actual sizes.)

BETTER

Fewer impurities

Younger

Growing in more

arid conditions

Later cuts of the tree

WORSE

More impurities

Older

Growing in more

moist conditions

Earlier cuts

of the tree

0

2

INCHES

CARRIE COCKBURN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCES: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP

CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; GOOGLE MAPS/

GOOGLE EARTH; TIMES OF OMAN;

WADI DAWKAH NATURAL PARK

As the tree population dwindles, there are fears

for the future of frankincense. The trees at the

Wadi Dawkah Natural Park produce this resin that many

Omanis consider the best anywhere in the world.

IRAN

Persian Gulf

QATAR

UAE

SAUDI

ARABIA

OMAN

Wadi Dawkah

Natural Park

DHOFAR

REGION

Arabian

Sea

300

0

YEMEN

Salalah

KM

WHERE THE TREES GROW

Just north of Salalah, the park is about 5 square

kilometres in size.

0

1

KM

Salalah-Thamrit-

Muscat Highway

31

Salalah

(40 kms

south)

Boundary

of the

wadi bed

WADI DAWKAH

NATURAL PARK

Locations

of the oldest

frankincense

trees

THE FRANKINCENSE TREE

There are about 5,000 Boswellia sacra trees in the park

HARVESTING THE SAP

Small cuts are made with a special knife into the bark of the tree causing a white liquid to appear which hardens on the surface. This is a protective sap to help heal the tree after a wound has been made.

The cut is left and then days later the harvester returns and scrapes off the white resin and cuts the tree a second time. The first resin is not useable. The resin becomes more aromatic and valuable with each cut as there are greater quantities of essential oil.

The tree can be cut multiple times and each time more resin is produced. But the trees need to recover from this process so that they can continue to produce the treasured sap.

Wound

Sap

GRADES OF FRANKINCENSE

There are four grades of frankincense. With each cut of the

tree the grade improves or generally gets more opaque.

Inland frankincense tends to be better quality than the

coastal areas where the greater moisture results in more

impurites. The sap darkens with age. (Below are some

color examples and roughly actual sizes.)

BETTER

Fewer impurities

Younger

Growing in more

arid conditions

Later cuts of the tree

WORSE

More impurities

Older

Growing in more

moist conditions

Earlier cuts of the tree

0

2

INCHES

CARRIE COCKBURN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCES: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; GOOGLE MAPS/GOOGLE

EARTH; TIMES OF OMAN; WADI DAWKAH NATURAL PARK

As the tree population dwindles, there are fears for the future of frankincense. The trees

at the Wadi Dawkah Natural Park produce this resin that many Omanis consider the best

anywhere in the world.

IRAN

Persian Gulf

QATAR

UAE

SAUDI

ARABIA

OMAN

31

DHOFAR

REGION

Wadi Dawkah

Natural Park

Arabian

Sea

300

0

Salalah

YEMEN

KM

WHERE THE TREES GROW

Just north of Salalah, the park is about 5 square kilometres in size.

0

1

KM

Salalah-Thamrit-

Muscat Highway

31

Salalah

(40 kms

south)

Boundary

of the

wadi bed

WADI DAWKAH

NATURAL PARK

Locations of the oldest

frankincense trees

THE FRANKINCENSE TREE

There are about 5,000 Boswellia sacra trees in the park

HARVESTING THE SAP

Small cuts are made with a special knife into the bark of the tree causing a white liquid to appear which hardens on the surface. This is a protective sap to help heal the tree after a wound has been made.

The cut is left and then days later the harvester returns and scrapes off the white resin and cuts the tree a second time. The first resin is not useable. The resin becomes more aromatic and valuable with each cut as there are greater quantities of essential oil.

The tree can be cut multiple times and each time more resin is produced. But the trees need to recover from this process so that they can continue to produce the treasured sap.

Wound

Sap

GRADES OF FRANKINCENSE

There are four grades of frankincense. With each cut of the tree the grade improves

or generally gets more opaque. Inland frankincense tends to be better quality than the

coastal areas where the greater moisture results in more impurites. The sap darkens

with age. (Below are some color examples and roughly actual sizes.)

BETTER

Fewer impurities

Younger

Growing in more

arid conditions

Later cuts of the tree

WORSE

More impurities

Older

Growing in more

moist conditions

Earlier cuts of the tree

0

2

INCHES

CARRIE COCKBURN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCES: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; GOOGLE MAPS/GOOGLE

EARTH; TIMES OF OMAN; WADI DAWKAH NATURAL PARK

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