Ethiopia is one of the countries well endowed with various species of Acacia, Boswellia and Commiphora that are known to produce gum arabic, frankincense and myrrh, respectively. Over 60 gum and resin bearing species are found in the country. The total area of oleogum resin bearing woodlands cover about 2.9 million hectors of land in the country, with over 300,000 metric tons of natural gum production potential. Boswellia papyrifera is a chief gum resin producing tree species in Ethiopia. The total area covered by the Papyrifera species is estimated to be more than 1.5 million hectors.
Frankincense, as well as other natural gums and resins are among dry land resources in Sub-Saharan Africa including Ethiopia that contribute to improved livelihoods of local communities in terms of food security, industrial supply, income generation and foreign exchange earnings. These resources also contribute to the amelioration of the environment. The development of these resources and commodities is key to sustainable management and development of the dry lands, which due to harsh environmental conditions have fewer alternative options.
Ethiopia is an agrarian country, including forestry which accounts for 54% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), employing 85% of the population, accounts for about 90% of exports and supplies over 90% of the raw materials for the agro-industries (CSA, 2000). At household level, studies carried out in one region of Ethiopia have shown that the gum resins business provides income about 3 times greater than the contribution of crop farming (Kindeya, 2002; Mulugeta et al., 2003). Despite the enormous socioeconomic importance of Acacia, Boswellia and Commiphora species, they are declining at an alarming rate due to agricultural expansion, overgrazing, fire, firewood collection, poor incense harvesting practices, shifting cultivation, termite and other infestations (Wubalem et al., 2002).
The deforestation in Ethiopia so severe that 12% of its 6,500-7,000 species of unique flora and fauna has become endemic. The forest resource has significantly and steadily declined both in size (deforestation) and in quality (degradation) to a only about 3.56% (WBISP, 2004). Despite the reduction in size and quality, the actual and potential contributions to the national and local economy from the forest-tree resources of the country are still tremendous and versatile.
Decline of Boswellia Papyrifera
Papyrifera population in the country is encountered in natural forests. Little or no efforts have been made to domesticate the species. One of the major problems associated with B. papyrifera is hampered natural regeneration (Tilahun, 1996; Oqbazghi, 2001; Abeje, 2001), which could be attributed to several factors. For instance, B. papyrifera is very sensitive for natural or human interferences and could be damaged easily. The most common factors observed causing damage to the trees, in North Gonder Zone, were windfall, insect attack (unidentified whitish worm), termite, fire, improper tapping, clearing and debranching by local farmers, trampling and grazing by cattle.(Abeje, 2002).
Deforestation, over grazing, resettlement and other land pose major problems. Clearing of the woodlands for farming and settlement, deliberately set fire, and harvesting for fuelwood are becoming the major threat to the future of the oleo-gum resin producing vegetations as well as the biological resources associated with them (Abeje, 2002). For instance, in Tigray region more than 177,000 ha of Bosswellia forest is reported to be destroyed in the last 20 years (Kindeya, 2003). Similar reports exist for Gonder (Abeje, 2002), and the Somali region (Mulugeta et al., 2003). Besides, assessments of B. papyrifera population in the north and northwestern parts of Ethiopia showed lack of natural regeneration leading to the listing of the species as one of the endangered species in Ethiopia (Kindeya, 2003).
Another risk factor is the inappropriate tapping of B. papyrifera. It was observed that the proportion of trees damaged/attacked by the unidentified worm was higher in tapped trees than those with untapped trees (Abeje, 2002) indicating that tapping exposes the tree for attack by pests and other damages. Also the worm attack has been found to hamper regeneration by inducing the production of non-viable seeds (Oqbazghi, 2001; Abeje, 2002). According to Farah (1994), the over all damages done to frankincense trees owing to improper tapping is tremendous, and perhaps over 50% of the frankincense trees subject to tapping are often damaged. Together with other damages such as overgrazing, fire and clearance for agriculture, improper tapping is causing a widespread damage including hampering natural regenerations. The deterioration of the woodland vege- tation stocks in the drylands is the principal root cause for advancing desertification in the region (Mulugeta and Demel, 2004).
No attempts have been made to domesticate the species as yet in spite of the fact that seeds, at least of B. papyrifera, can germinate readily since they have low or no dormancy (Tilahun and Legesse, 1999) and vegetative propagation seems relatively easy.
Therefore, research and development efforts and international collaborations could have strong potentials to the conservation, production and commercialization for the benefits of the local, national as well as the international communities.
Author: Raqib Zaman