Conserving the Peace

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Alexandra Harden, C+S ’17

The Cal Madow mountain range stretches along the northeast coast of Somaliland, a semi-autonomous region of northern Somalia. Rugged and dry, the mountains rise almost 8,000 feet above sea level overlooking the Gulf of Aden.

For thousands of years, this region has provided an ideal environment for Boswellia carterii and Boswellia frereana trees. These trees produce frankincense resin, which is culturally significant and a significant part of the local economy.

Recently, the region has been experiencing warmer temperatures and less rainfall. While seemingly slight, these changes are having a considerable impact on the health of the trees and the communities that rely on them. Climate change will only further shift things, and conservation provides a unique opportunity to strengthen and prepare communities through preservation.

Somaliland (source: : Conserve the Cal Madow: Frankincense Systems Analysis)

Somaliland sits on the northern edge of the Horn of Africa and has been experiencing extreme and prolonged droughts, placing substantial stress on the local populations and environments. According to UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the region has seen four seasons of below average rainfall over the past two years.

Decreased precipitation can have negative impacts on resin production as the trees struggle to cope with the change in climate. This not only stresses the existing ecosystems, but it’s had a negative impact on traditional sources of income. According to the Somaliland Chamber of Commerce, 60-65 percent of the economy relies on livestock. However, drought-stricken pasturelands have made raising livestock a less profitable trade, forcing communities to look for alternative ways to replace lost income. As one of the poorest countries in the world, even the smallest changes to the region’s economy can have far-reaching and overwhelming impacts.

Somaliland 2012 (source: Flickr/YoTuT)

Harvesting frankincense resin is one of the ways communities are supplementing lost income. The process has been refined over thousands of years and supports and honors the health of the trees. However, as drought continues to impact livestock sales and global resin demand skyrockets, the trees are being tapped more frequently.

Global demand for frankincense resin has experienced consistent growth over the past six years. According to Conserve the Cal Madow, an ongoing research project, resin prices were $1 or less per kilogram in 2010. By November 2016, those prices had jumped to an average of $6 per kilogram.

The increase in harvesting paired with continuing drought has caused significant damage to the Cal Madow’s Boswellia trees. To secure a healthy future for the trees, continued careful monitoring and joint conservation plans with national and international actors should be utilized to address environmental and stakeholder concerns.

This will become increasingly important as landscapes continue to evolve in response to climate change and as resin trading continues in international markets. Additionally, since the forests are heavily integrated into the livelihoods of the people of Somaliland, a conservation plan needs to acknowledge the complex relationships between community and environment.

When resources become the grounds for competing interests, conflict can arise. Conservation provides the opportunity for peacebuilding in areas susceptible to tensions arising from weak resource management. Acknowledging the different stakeholder interests in the Cal Madow, a conflict-sensitive conservation plan can help communities work together to address and satisfy different interests. Maintaining the health of the Boswellia trees is critical to securing long-term economic health, preserving cultural significance and building community resilience to future climate change.

If unsustainable harvesting practices are left unaddressed, the income generated by the Cal Madow’s Boswellia trees could decline as tree health suffers from over tapping. Furthermore, rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns could push the trees outside their optimal production zone and alter the amount of resin produced. That has the potential to increase competition for resources, even forcing populations to migrate to other areas for survival. This displacement can often extend beyond state borders, which can increase tension in places far from the original source of the climate shock.

Embracing conservation practices that respect the social and environmental relationship inherent to natural resource management is on the rise. Conflict-sensitive conservation provides a unique opportunity to strengthen communities and provide the groundwork for sustainable growth.

Climate change will have an impact on competition for natural resources. Equipping communities and governments with the capacity to respond judiciously could help prevent tensions from erupting into violent conflict. While climate change is often painted in collapsing ice sheets, flash flooding and other catastrophic scenarios, small changes in regional climate are capable of equally devastating impacts. Acknowledging this potential gives conservationists the unique opportunity to increase community resilience and stability through the skills cultivated in conflict-sensitive conservation practices.

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