In Somaliland, the trees that yield essential oils are being exploited. So are the women. It’s past time for this billion-dollar industry to do something about it.
By Anjanette DeCarlo, PhD. Founder, Save Frankincense
What I had thought was serendipity turned out to be a setup. It was a hot, dry day in September 2016 when my former student came to greet me and my three colleagues at our modest hotel. Our trip to Somaliland had been funded by a UK company to investigate a chemical component in their frankincense supply. My student told us excitedly that he had just run into a “friend” on the street, who happened to be the largest frankincense supplier in Somalia.
Moments later, Barkhad Hassan walked in and introduced himself in a thick British accent, inviting us to dinner at the hotel to hear more about the work he was doing with his company, Asli Maydi. Because our team had come to this breakaway republic in the Horn of Africa to conduct research on the trees, we considered this a surprisingly fortuitous opportunity.
At dinner, with us as a captive audience, Mr. Hassan theatrically displayed his company paperwork: trading licenses and ancient-looking documents that he said were ancestral land rights. The land where frankincense grows in Somaliland is communal, but the trees are privately owned; he explained that his family has some ownership of one plot of trees. He said it was his mission to overturn the old aristocracy of frankincense-owning families, priding himself on being “a man of the people.” After dinner, he bade us farewell, informing us that he was past time to chew khat (a stimulant) with his men.
We took a moment to try to make sense of what we’d just experienced, one of us breaking our bewildered silence by saying, “I don’t know what exactly is going on, but this guy is someone big.” I was charmed by Hassan, as were my colleagues. It’s not every day I meet someone whose passion for frankincense matches my own. I was drawn to him immediately—later, I would be ashamed for having ever been attracted to him.
As it would often be with circumstances involving Hassan, this meeting was no coincidence. Unbeknownst to me, he had been stalking me even before I got off the plane in Somaliland, and had told my student—who was in fact working for him—to fake the run-in on the street. Hassan’s perfectly staged theatrics would suck me into what shortly became a tumultuous and dangerous spiral of lies, deceit, and eventually, sexual assault.
The forest had been a refuge and place of wonder for me from a very young age. I deeply desired to protect the trees from man’s neverending onslaught against nature. Injustice against plants and animals was something I could relate to; it felt like the same injustice that vulnerable people were powerless against, inextricably linked to systems of domination and extraction.
My mother and I had known that vulnerability. We lived on the road in the 1970s and ’80s, moving from place to place, and I missed years of formal education. In ninth grade, a teacher saved me by tucking me tightly under her wing; her school was a safe space in which I could thrive. I took that “space” and ran with it, eventually earning a PhD.
I’ve since worked for decades as a professional environmentalist. Early involvement with protests against oil company investments in apartheid and the destruction of old-growth forests inspired me to be a part of positive change. I was especially interested in how businesses could evolve from an extractive to a sustainable environmental model, while lifting marginalized people out of poverty. Frankincense is now my specialty.
The trade of frankincense is considered one of the world’s oldest supply chains, with over 6,000 years of history. Long an important component in Traditional Chinese Medicine, frankincense is also famous as one of the gifts brought to baby Jesus by the magi, and it is a sacred burning during church services worldwide. Frankincense is known today as the “king of essential oils,” as its intense aroma and relative safety make it highly sought after for perfumes and skin care products. The tree's specific biomarker, boswellic acid, is used in herbal supplements for its anti-inflammatory properties.
Frankincense resin is harvested across parts of Africa, the Middle East, and India by making small incisions in the tree bark, which exude resin that is scraped off by harvesters. When done properly with enough time for the tree to rest and recover, this causes the tree no long-term harm. Somaliland produces thousands of tons of resin annually. Hassan was recently relocated from the United Kingdom and was a newer player in this industry. He seemed intent on becoming the biggest dealer in the region.
A few days after that dinner at the hotel, Hassan inserted himself into my work in ways that initially seemed productive. He set up a meeting at the mayor’s office in the city of Erigavo, a historical trading hub, and provided a police escort. The chiefs and elders at this meeting asked me to expand my research to as many areas as I could, so my colleagues and I abandoned our original project scope of testing one group of trees; instead, we would travel over vast areas to hear the people’s voices and assess the health of the forests. Hassan offered to help make this possible. It wasn’t until later that I understood why.
As we embarked on our new research, some of the chiefs recognized me from my previous fieldwork and invited me to their communities with open arms. But as site visits began, things quickly turned chaotic. Initially, we were with a local chief and another company, but Hassan tried to stop that arrangement. Then, our vehicles were chased by armed youths in pickup trucks, and raging arguments with the young men ensued. When I finally arrived at the first frankincense forests, I was horrified. The trees’ bark was stripped, they were overtapped, and people in the communities were fighting for their lives due to drought.
I had not experienced this sort of chaos in Somaliland before. Posing as our partner, Hassan feigned great concern about our security, yet things were devolving from bad to worse since he’d arrived on the scene. I was perplexed and disoriented, but also stuck—one can't just walk into the frankincense forests without access through a supplier, and much of what I saw was of utmost importance to the future of these trees. Beyond Hassan also stood the large international companies he was selling to, who were publicly stating their commitment to sustainability. My research was vital to show them the hazards to the trees and the flaws in the supply chain. I had to persevere.
As more chaotic episodes unfolded, Hassan announced that his enemies were now after me because of the site visits he had arranged. He proclaimed he was now putting himself in charge of all of our site visits for “security reasons.” I began to wonder whether these risks were real or staged. Then, the death threats began. Some were direct, some veiled. Some came via puppet accounts on Facebook messenger, others through WhatsApp. One email in particular said I would be “hunted down in the forest and killed”—that one took some time to get out of my head.
Though I cannot speak to Hassan’s motives, I see now that generating the chaos enabled him to manipulate what was happening—not only with us, the investigating scientists, but in the region’s frankincense industry. Once he gained control on the ground, he would be the only supplier any buyer could use. Making the situation seem more incendiary than it actually was could also provide an excuse for poor sourcing practices. In charge of our “security,” Hassan could show us what he wanted us to see, obscure what he did not want found out, and effectively block us from doing our work. And that is what happened.
On the next site visit, we were sent on a hike to find forests that were presented as being just over the next hill. When we reached the trees several hours and 11 kilometers later, we were dismayed to find them heavily overtapped. On a later trip in August 2017, when I was due to present my research at a conference on gums and resins, I was blocked from entering Somaliland via my connecting flight from Ethiopia. An airline agent showed me a letter that appeared to be on government letterhead, apologizing profusely that she could not let me board the plane, despite having never seen such a letter before.
On a subsequent trip in March 2018, I was allowed into Somaliland without issue, but when I tried to go back to the growing area, men with guns took me from my hotel in Hargeisa to the immigration office. The official there was bewildered, as all my papers were in order. Then, Hassan showed up, saying he had paid a lawyer to get me released. The head of immigration stiffened up and became visibly uncomfortable. When I traveled to another city, Berbera, I was brought in again. Ultimately, I was never charged with anything, nor could anyone explain why I kept being arrested. The immigration official apologized for what had happened.
And yet in Burao, I was detained a third time. I later found out from a local chief that Hassan had been telling people I was his wife and a big buyer who carried suitcases of money. He misrepresented my research to tell the communities I had said their resin was poison, and told them I was offering to buy it for cents on the dollar. Not only was he completely disrupting my investigations, he was using me as a pawn.
Interestingly, Hassan’s tactics also created a chain reaction effect higher up the ladder. Companies in the United States and Europe benefit by hiring scientists like me so they can better understand the complexities in their supply chains and claim to be funding sustainability work. But Hassan was actively preventing us from being able to conduct our research accurately, act on our findings, or undertake fixes. If he hadn’t engaged with us and we’d done what we’d intended, our report might have been different, perhaps even worse. But if he could divert us and pull the wool over our eyes, then by proxy, the companies buying frankincense could get away with telling their customers that all was well with the trees and communities—when in fact, it was not. But this is also why I kept working with him. He was such a big player, I needed to get a comprehensive picture of what was behind all of this chaos to properly assess the state of the trees and supply chain.
On our last day of this trip—when we were still unsure whether the government would work with us after a startling episode in which Hassan’s driver threw $15,000 cash in my lap and Hassan told me to give it to an official at Hargeisa’s new gums and resins department (I refused)—Hassan invited me, a colleague, and some Somali locals to his home for a goodbye tea. One might ask why I went. The fact is, I was actively trying to find a way to transition from being tied to him, and to deal instead with the government and NGOs. I was desperate to help the communities and the trees; I knew that only through Hassan could I leverage new partnerships and regain some independence to do my research. This work, the trees, and the hardships of the people in the frankincense communities were so important to me that I had to find a way.
When my colleague and I arrived, there were many men chewing khat in a hall, a woman preparing tea, and people gathered in the main room, talking and sipping. Hassan said he wanted to show me some frankincense he just got, so I followed him into another room to see it. When I bent down to look at the sack on the floor, he pushed me through and locked the door. I stood up, and he pushed me farther into the room, grabbing me by the wrists. I asked him what he was doing, and told him to stop. I said no. I remember him telling me to “be a good girl.”
He pushed me onto my knees on a bed, face-down, and yanked up my full-length dress. I froze. I was completely shocked. I saw purses hanging on a coat rack in one corner and a dresser full of perfume bottles alongside me, and I remember thinking this was a woman’s bedroom—probably one of his wives’, or their master bedroom. Hassan yanked my underwear to the side and penetrated me. Just then, my colleague banged on the door and called my name, saying, “Where the hell is Anjanette?” and “Hey, what is going on?” This caused a diversion, Hassan moved off of me, and I ran to the door and got out. My colleague was standing there, to my great relief.
We left the house immediately and got into our car. I tried not to freak out in front of the driver, but I could barely hold on. When we arrived at the hotel, I told my colleague that Hassan had sexually assaulted me. I was terrified, and couldn’t function, and had no idea how to report Hassan without endangering myself. Somaliland is not a recognized country, so there is no American embassy or consulate. We decided the best course of action was to get on our early morning flight and then figure out what to do once we were far away and safe. I had to hold it together on the long flights; finally, when I was back home with my family, I let it all out.
I reported the sexual assault to a company I was working with at the time. Somehow Hassan found out, and began sending me text message after abusive text message. I saw on social media that the company continued to work with Hassan, despite the fact that he had raped me. (The company declined to comment on its dealings with Hassan.) For a long time, I believed nothing could be done to hold him accountable, and I was going to have to live with it—until I realized I was not alone.
Girls and women in Somaliland are also exploited by men who work in this industry. Since my own experience, I have heard accounts of women and girls being offered as sexual favors in exchange for access to certain resources. The women who sort the resins report lack of pay, intimidation at work, no access to protective equipment, and kidney pain from sitting such long hours. Women are not permitted to own trees, and have very few rights. To the best of my knowledge, these practices are ongoing in the Somalian frankincense industry and beyond–women are commonly raped by men in positions of power. This is the reason that I decided to come forward publicly in recent Showtime and Vice documentary programs—for myself, for the women, and for the trees.
My ordeal was traumatic, and it's stressful and humiliating to recount what happened. But because I am an American scientist, journalists are willing to report on my story. Women who harvest the frankincense resin used in products marketed to women the world over are subject to genital mutilation, paid meager wages, and treated as men’s property. Many African women I met, who never encounter journalists, are exploited by businessmen in their country. When international companies do business with these men, they are complicit in this abuse.
The same goes for the trees: Many companies, despite report after report of overtapping and exploitation of Somaliland’s frankincense forests, continue to buy from the very suppliers responsible for these travesties—all while dubbing their products “sustainable” or “ethical.” Companies are complicit in this exploitation when they continue to do business with suppliers who abuse the ecology that gives them their living.
The answer is not to boycott frankincense products. Rather, there is a lot of power in the hands of their consumers. We can demand better accountability from companies by insisting on actual third-party-verifiable proof of sustainability claims, particularly certifications focused on social risks and ecological sustainability, such as UEBT and FairWild. Blockchain systems can be used to verify digital payment ledgers, so it can be confirmed that local workers were paid, and how much, for harvesting and sorting resin. Everything is traceable—unless you don't want it to be.
In this beautiful land, nature provides the healing elements that cultures throughout the world have valued for millennia. It is incumbent upon us to value the hardworking people and ancient trees that bring us these beautiful aromas so we can benefit from their unique properties.
For my part, I will continue to defend and find healing in the very forests that brought me to Somaliland. Queen Hapshetsut, one of only two female pharaohs in the Egyptian empire, had frankincense resin burning at all times in her temples as a means of convening with the gods; her temple in the Valley of the Kings is inscribed with depictions of the frankincense harvest. I come from a long line of predecessors who recognized the transcendent value and beauty of these trees. Telling this story to the world is my way of releasing their power, much as Queen Hapshetsut did. My heartfelt goal is that we will find the means to provide the living beings of Somaliland—both human and tree—the dignity that is their birthright.
Barkhad Hassan did not respond to our request for comment on this story, nor did the company the author was working for when she alleges she was raped by Hassan.
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