Frankincense, Myrrh and protecting the last green belt against the Sahara

In the summer of 2017, Action Ethiopia received the fantastic news that we had been awarded a 3 year Comic Relief grant for an exciting new project working with our partner SUNARMA Ethiopia in Metema woreda, north-west Ethiopia. The project entitled ‘Frankincense, Myrrh and protecting the last green belt against the Sahara’ harnesses SUNARMA’s strength of working with forest-dependent communities to create opportunities for them to earn incomes from harvesting gum and incense while protecting the natural environment around them. It will also bring in the use of technology in the form of remote ‘hubs’ that will improve communications. We are particularly excited about testing how the technology can be used to enhance monitoring, improve community access to information and their ability to feedback information directly to the hubs.

Metema woreda, with a population of approximately 64,500 people, is located close to the Sudanese border. It is about 900km from Addis Ababa. It is in a dryland region which means it receives little rainfall. Drylands cover around 70% of Ethiopia and they are areas which suffer harsh climatic conditions making farming, a mainstay for many rural poor, very difficult. These regions are, however, not devoid of opportunities. Metema, for example, has resources on its doorstep; trees. Not just any trees but valuable natural gum and resin producing species including Boswellia popyrifera and Acacia seyal. The tapping of these trees enables the gum to be collected. Once collected it can be sorted into different grades and sold. Frankincense is an aromatic resin which is derived from a number of Boswellia species. It has a lot of religious symbolism as being one of the three gifts along with gold and myrrh that were offered to the infant Jesus. It is currently used extensively in the perfume and cosmetics industry. Distillation of the resin produces an essential oil which is also widely used. Like Frankincense, myrrh is also a gum that is derived from tapping and has many similar uses.

Improper or over tapping and poor general forest management is having a devastating effect on the land and forests around Metema. Trees are often tapped too frequently without proper rest periods which can result in them becoming less productive or dying. Over grazing and forest clearance for agriculture are other problems affecting Metema. This project will work with 11 cooperative groups in 9 kebeles within Metema woreda. The project will work with these groups to improve harvesting, promote better forest management and improve incomes. The promotion of various non-timber forest products such as honey production will further enhance incomes and increase the opportunities available.

This project has already met with some challenges during its first 6 months including civil unrest and changes in regional administration which caused delays to the start of the project. The situation has stabilised but remains tense. SUNARMA has found a field office and recruited key staff and now are gearing up to get this project off the ground. We’ll keep you posted with developments.