We’ve had a lot of people reaching out with questions in response to the viral Vice News video, and while our instinct is to stay out of the fray, we also feel it’s important to address some key points.
Frankincense is the second largest industry in Somaliland, and there are tens of thousands of people dependent on it. The Vice video is focused on one particular corrupt businessman and a huge corporate entity who has been trying to control the frankincense trade in Somaliland for multiple years. They’ve employed (Western) academics to boost their claims of sustainability, pitted tribes against each other causing serious tribal conflicts, undercut smaller companies’ attempts to purchase resins by coercing harvesters not to sell to anyone except them, and taken other manipulative measures for their own interests. Anyone associated with them in Somaliland has drawn the scorn of many Somalis because they have purposely disrupted the frankincense sector in malicious ways for nothing more than their own bottom line (and perhaps some notoriety among the academic researchers involved in their scheme).
It is important to recognize that this whole situation has been perpetuated by Westerners who feel entitled to the natural resource of an unrecognized African country that they know practically nothing about. Most people have never (and will never) set foot in Somaliland. Aside from the fact that it’s not an internationally recognized country, many people view it through the lens of what they know about Somalia and its capital, Mogadishu, and therefore do not want to visit (a misguided and unfortunate view, but that’s a topic for another day). For this reason, it makes it even easier for bad actors to spread lies about what is or isn’t happening there. You can get away with claiming you built an entire school when none ever existed. You can claim an entire population of trees are dying, when the majority of trees are healthy and abundant. Who’s going to verify it?
The person featured in the video is in fact a corrupt business owner, and this is well known in Somaliland. He has ripped off many people, harvesters included, and gets what he wants through threats and intimidation. We can confirm this, having been on the receiving end of those threats, as well as running into difficulty securing resin for our business due to his obstruction. His reputation precedes him. It would be highly unlikely that companies and researchers who have been involved with him did so without any knowledge of his misdeeds. Draw your own conclusions for what that says about the integrity of those people or companies.
The Somali frankincense supply chain has functioned steadily for hundreds if not thousands of years, and weathered major fluctuations in demand. The corruption and chaos that we’re seeing today is a phenomenon that began in 2016 when a large Western corporation joined forces with a corrupt Somali businessman and Western researchers with the goal of controlling the Somali frankincense supply chain. Since then, they have thrown the sector into disarray by pitting tribes against each other, paying millions of dollars to a business owner who operates through illegal tactics such as theft, coercion, and intimidation, and worked with Western researchers to create a manufactured crisis all with the effect of stirring up chaos in the supply chain. We’ve been sourcing frankincense from Somaliland since 2004, and prior to 2016 never encountered the chaos, misinformation, and instability that we’re now dealing with.
What we want people to know about frankincense harvesting in Somaliland is that it has been ongoing for many generations without Western intervention. The trees are passed down generationally within a family. They are never for sale. Not even to a huge American corporation. Somalis hold a deep reverence for these trees and know that protecting them and harvesting them properly is of vital importance to the future of their children, grandchildren and beyond, who will also make a living from harvesting them.
We’re going to continue operating as we have all along by working directly with harvesting families, building those relationships of trust and respect, asking them what they need and doing our best to deliver. We’re going to continue to support Somali-led research of the frankincense trees and sustainable harvesting practices. We’re small compared to some of these other export companies, so our resources can only go so far and we work with a small number of farmers, but our success is largely due to the fact that we’re Somali owned, and all of our sourcing is done by Somalis who speak the language, live the culture, understand the clan structure and how relationships work within those structures. It’s vital to operating there, and those who don’t ultimately end up disrespecting the culture and the customs, and then come out and say everything is messed up there because it’s not functioning the way their Western mentality thinks it should. Just being more aware of these bad actors, not giving them your support, and not amplifying their false narratives can go a long way in helping to change the situation. It’s up to you to take all this information and draw your own conclusions when deciding where to purchase your frankincense oil. We wanted to be sure that it is clear to our customers what our values are, how we’ve navigated this situation, and that we’ve held true to our values since our inception 18 years ago, long before most of these companies were even in existence. Thank you for listening.
The Boswellness Team