Over the past few years, I have learned more about the sustainability of the plants from which some of my favorite essential oils are derived. I'm especially interested in frankincense. Frankincense resin has been a highly valued trade commodity for health and spiritual uses for thousands of years. Historically and currently, it is used for skin conditions, as incense in many religions, for tumors, digestive ailments, infections of all kinds, and even for diabetes. Several years ago, I was approached by a man who was concerned about the way that the frankincense trade was being managed in his home country of Somaliland. He has explored a different way of managing production of frankincense essential oil, to benefit his people and the planet. There are several types of frankincense and most of the species, Boswellia frereana, comes from that region. Kareem described to me how frankincense is grown and harvested. Explaining at least in part, why the supply is threatened. Climate change may be another stressor, but we're focusing here on agricultural and economic factors. There are several groups of players in frankincense production, all of whom need to be considered. Firstly, the farmers who own the land where the trees grow. It takes many years for the trees to be ready for resin harvesting. Also, harvesters need to be considered. These are men who obtained the resin by climbing the trees, slashing the bark with machetes, and then returning later to collect the resin. The resin is produced by the tree to heal the wounds made by the slashing. Then the sorters. Women who sought the collected resin by color and grade. Because of the way they are paid and low wages, harvesters often end the season in debt for the next season, not getting free of debt. The women sorters may be as young as nine years old. They often work 12-hour days in buildings with no sanitary facilities for as little as a dollar a day. There is a fourth group, the middleman, who buy the sorted resin and sell it through distributors. Then there are the processors, packagers and consumers. Only about 20 percent of the resin is used for essential oils, but this sector is growing rapidly. Given this situation, you might wonder where the money you spend on frankincense, not in inexpensive essential oil goes. Well, most of it goes to the middlemen, processors and retailers. Because so little goes to the farmers, harvesters and sorters, there is pressure to overharvest the trees. Harvesting too early or too often. This can weaken the trees and shorten their lifespan, increasing concerns about the sustainability of the trees and the lives of those who work with them. In order to promote the healthy community responses to these issues, my friend Kareem has organized groups of farmers, harvesters, and sorters, into cooperatives that can market directly reducing the need for middleman. With women and harvesters paid a higher wage, families are in a better position to send children to school and to explore ways of creating their own retail products from resin and essential oils. There's less pressure on farmers and harvesters to overharvest. These and other communities are in the process of obtaining fair trade designation so that the ultimate consumers, you and I, can be positively involved in this effort. Concerns about sustainability are not unique to frankincense essential oil. Although the geography and politics may vary by plant and location, essential oils obtained from slow-growing trees are especially vulnerable. Frankincense, sandalwood, myrrh, rosewood, and others. What can we do as consumers? Start by asking your suppliers about fair trade practices. Although you are not likely to find a lot of fair trade products at this time, asking the question will prompt companies to seek them wherever possible. I for one, would be willing to pay a little more for products that I knew were benefiting rather than depleting source communities and the environment. These essential oils are some of the most exquisite and have great health benefits. Sometimes other essential oils with no concerns about sustainability can be used instead, or smaller amounts can be used. As you learn more about other essential oils and the chemistry of essential oils, you will be able to assess each individual situation. I'm very grateful to my friend Kareem for raising my awareness about sustainability. I hope this makes you curious to learn more as well.