Churches the world over, and nowhere more than in Jerusalem, could smell quite different in the future because, thanks to human behavior, populations of the trees and shrubs that supply the resin for frankincense are collapsing.
A research paper published last week in Nature Sustainability says that populations of Boswellia trees and shrubs are threatened by over-exploitation and ecosystem degradation, jeopardizing future resin production to the extent that production in 20 years is predicted to be half of what it is today.
The resin, an ingredient in the incense offered in the Temple (Exodus 30:34), and part of the gift offered by the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:11), is collected from natural populations of Boswellia, particularly the species Boswellia papyrifera, also known as Sudanese frankincense. This grows in Ethiopia, Sudan, the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa and is thought to be the source of the resin used in ancient times.
“Using inventories of 23 populations consisting of 21,786 trees, growth-ring data from 202 trees and demographic models on the basis of 7,246 trees, we find that over 75 percent of studied populations lack small trees, natural regeneration has been absent for decades, and projected frankincense production will be halved in 20 years,” says the report.
“These changes are caused by increased human population pressure on Boswellia woodlands through cattle grazing, frequent burns and reckless tapping. A literature review showed that other Boswellia species experience similar threats.”
Populations can be restored, says the report, by establishing cattle exclosures and fire-breaks, and by planting trees and tapping trees more carefully for the resin.
“Concerted conservation and restoration efforts are urgently needed to secure the long-term availability of this iconic product.”
The research team was led by Frans Bongers of Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands.
Botanist Dr. Elaine Solowey, Director of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, was the first person in Israel to succeed in growing Boswellia, which disappeared from the Holy Land, where it was cultivated, 1,500 years ago.