Interviewer: How long have you been working on sustainability of frankincense?
Anjanette: So let’s see… Well, it’s been a good solid ten years since the first time that I started collaborating with some people who were interested in Vermont at the university when I was at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. I was approached by a Somali guy and an American guy who wanted to work in frankincense, but wanted to know more about it. I worked on it for several years at the university doing lit review and student work and interacting with these guys. Finally I went and did the first in-country analysis of the condition of the trees and the harvesting communities. I did a situation analysis, where you look at the different factors that can be affecting a resource, and in this case the resource was frankincense. That was in 2010 (laughs) and then, after that, I continued working on it from the angle of publishing and did that for a couple years and integrated it into my teaching when I was working as a professor at St. Michael’s College. My students, both those students at the University of Vermont and students at St. Michael’s, had the experience of being involved in the distillery, seeing resins, working on supply chain stuff with me.
Then, just two, three years ago, Lush contacted me (which is a big company out of the UK, that does body care products). They contacted me to work on, again… to go back and do another analysis of the health of the trees. That’s the period where I did work. I released new reports on the condition of the tress, went back to locations that I had been before. That’s where we started interviewing harvesters and land owners intensively, and really had started to see that issues of resource over-use were really cropping up, just in the interviewing process, you know, even as an ecologist looking at the trees, but also in interviewing so many people. In locations that had been, six years earlier… we were seeing even more over-harvesting occurring.
I: What first interested you in the growth and sustainability of frankincense? Why did you say yes?
A: Well, I knew about frankincense. I’ve been into natural medicine and aromatherapy pretty much my whole life. I started protesting eating animals at about age five. (laughs) I was really big into health foods and food grown sustainably. I went to a special program in high school that focused on environmental sciences. I knew from a pretty young age that I wanted to be an environmental activist or an environmentalist or environmental scientist and that’s kind of the progression that it’s taken.
So I knew about frankincense. I had actually brought some back from Ethiopia many years earlier (before these guys had approached me), because I had been working on regrowing forests to create natural capital for a children’s orphanage and residential home in Awassa, Ethiopia (Awassa Children’s Project). They use frankincense a lot there. So I had known about it. I brought some back. I had even brought back frankincense from Guatemala one time from ten years earlier because they were burning it in churches there. And in South America they have copal, which is kind of like their frankincense of that region.
So I already knew about it and I already liked it. I knew it was powerful natural medicine. I knew about the mystic qualities of it, in terms of it being used in holy places. So when I was approached… Yeah, of course! (laughs) Of course I’m interested in, you know, the health of frankincense trees and knowing more about how to help communities to do better. Because that’s a pretty standard problem in a neo-colonialist paradigm with Africa, right? During colonization, a lot of natural resources were just extracted as primary extraction. They weren’t manufactured in a way that there was benefit to the whole economy. So I’m really in favor of empowering folks with market knowledge so that they understand the value of their products when they’re negotiating with international entities and also in advancing supply chains, so that they’re more modernized.
And frankincense, really, has needed modernization. Desperately. Especially now with the demand for it more and more because it’s such good medicine. More and more people want to use frankincense, so we need to apply more and more good practices to protect the trees. And also experiment with planting them. You know, innovate the supply chain. Just because it was a certain way for several hundred years or thousands of years, it doesn’t mean it has to stay the same. And in fact, things always need to change and modernize. Frankincense is kind of going through that process right now, in Somaliland and Somalia specifically. But Oman kind of already went through this process and they’ve done a lot of modernization of their supply chain. And now it’s really the African countries…
*Edited for length and clarity