Frankincense: The Politicization of a Dying Trade

Photo: MedanToday


The History of Frankincense in Indonesia

Frankincense has long been stuff of legend. Used by the Arabs since Biblical times, the crystals from the boswellia sacra were originally brought to Europe by returning Frankish Crusaders in the 11th century to be burned to cleanse houses of bad smells. Hence, the adaptation of the original Arabic name al-lubbān was adopted to become frankincense. Frankincense today is an expensive item mainly grown in Yemen and Oman. The lucrative trade is largely controlled by the Sultan of Oman.

Benzoin resin is produced by several species of Styrax trees. It is used as a component in incenses, perfumes, and medicines. In South East Asia two types of this resin are produced: Siam benzoin, extracted from Styrax tonkinensis in Laos, Vietnam, and southern China; and Sumatran benzoin, extracted from Styrax paralleloneurum and Styrax benzoin in Sumatra, Indonesia. Sumatran benzoin is a resin produced by Styrax trees, managed in forest gardens in the highlands of north Sumatra.

There are two types of Benzoin resin used in incense and perfumery, Siam benzoin and Sumatran benzoin. Siam benzoin is obtained from Styrax tonkinensis, found across Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Sumatran banzoin is obtained from Styrax benzoin grown on the island of Sumatra. Both varieties are anti-pathogenic resins, which are exuded from the tree when it is damaged.

In the 9th century, both types of resin were already being traded in China and used as components of traditional medicine (Sumatran benzoin) and perfumes (Siam benzoin). Arab traders were instrumental in the expansion of its trade, as it was fast becoming one of the most expensive trade products from the East. Sumatran benzoin has the bigger market share of around 4,000 tonnes per year compared to 70 tonnes for Siam benzoin (Katz et al. 2002), though it is less valued on the international market.

Benzoin resin has been extracted for centuries from wild trees that occur naturally on Sumatra Island, and as the market expanded local people started to plant benzoin trees in their gardens. It is not clear when cultivation began but it has existed for at least 200 years. The management system was described in Dutch reports in the late 19th century, and today’s practice does not differ much from the one reported then.

The Trade of Frankincense

Benzoin resin has been traded for centuries. The trade system has developed over this long period of time and remains quite traditional and secretive for some of the processing steps. It relies on trading networks and relationships established over several generations, as well as on specific technical knowledge. In Indonesia, several groups are involved in the market chain: village collectors, regional traders, retailers, inter-island traders, and exporters.

Official data show that 4,970 tonnes of Benzoin resin from North Sumatra was traded in 1993, of which 4,700 tonnes were produced in Tapanuli Utara district, with a value of around US$6 million (BAPPEDA 1995). In 1996 Tapanuli Utara produced 4,200 tonnes of Benzoin resin (Perkebunan 1996). Production in this district dropped further to 4,000 tonnes in 1998, at a value of US$4.8 million (assuming a price of Rp10,000/kg and an exchange rate of Rp8,300 to the US dollar). The benzoin trade volume is decreasing as a result of replacement of benzoin with other substances and the erosion of ritual ceremonies diminishing demand for incense, combined with farmers shifting towards other, more profitable activities. Most Indonesian benzoin is used in the production of incense for the national markets.

The Mismanagement of Frankincense

Most of the industries where natural Benzoin resin is transformed into blocks are located in Central Java; others are in Singapore and North Sumatra.

In Central Java there are a few local industries that still produce a traditional cigarette called Klembak menyan. Smoked mainly by older men, the main components are tobacco enriched with benzoin resin, klembak (Rheum officinale), and cloves (Syzygium aromaticum). Benzoin resin is also used as a flavoring agent in the clove cigarette industry, which represents an important national market. In 1993, 140 billion clove cigarettes were produced in Indonesia.

Benzoin processing in Java is still quite traditional, meaning the quality and safety of the product are still questionable. This is especially true for benzoin processing for traditional cigarette consumption and perfume.

The use of Benzoin resin is regulated by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) and is considered a restricted substance due to its risk of causing sensitization potentially leading to generalized allergic response. The IFRA Standard states– “Crude gums of American and Asian styrax should not be used as fragrance ingredient. Only extracts or distillates (resinoids, absolutes and oils) can be used and should not exceed a level of 0.6% in consumer product.” This regulation stands for both skin contact and non-skin contact consumer products. That’s why Benzoin resin processing is being controlled professionally.

According to CIFOR, interest in Benzoin resin conservation and development potential has increased over the last few decades. Attempts were made to find new end products and to establish processing factories in the raw material area (Edison et al. 1983; Sagala et al. 1989), but so far results have not materialized. In 1992, a “Development of Small Ventures” joint venture was initiated to help benzoin traders export the resin to Japan, the Netherlands, and France. In 1997 only 3 tonnes were exported.

Government investments to support Benzoin resin production are limited and in most cases have failed because of mismanagement. In 1974 a program to replace old benzoin trees was started, and the government provided funds to village cooperative units to support Benzoin resin marketing but it failed to follow up (Muhtaman et al. 1998). The local government issued soft loans to stabilize the benzoin market through the Indonesia National Bank in 1980 and through the Bank of Central Asia in 1986. These efforts met with poor results as the lack of a standardized system for grading resin, resulted in erroneous estimations, and the mismanagement of funds were considered to be the main causes of failure.

Frankincense and Land Conflict

In February 2013 the Frankincense issue flared up in Sipituhuta, Hasundutan Humbang District in North Sumatra, Indonesia between PT Toba Pulp Lestari (TPL) and residents of Pandumaan.

The sudden appearance of the conflict raises serious questions about who is agitating the communities which, until early 2013, were in peaceful relationships with the companies. The demonstrators demanded the cancellation of Ministerial Decree No. 44/Menhut-II/2005 since they claimed that the land has been handed down to them through generations.

Several NGO groups in North Sumatra have long demanded the decree be revised and arable land excluded from the community forest. When referring to the decree, the amount of land that has been designated as residential areas, and even some offices, also changed its status to protected areas, not only the “frankincense” plantations but other smallholders as well.

Indonesia, for the second time in its contemporary history since 1998, is experiencing a paradigm shift within its society. This time it is not the fight for democratic space but pure and simple land ownership. The cleverly promoted civil society concept of questioning the legal boundaries of properties stems from the US concept of Participatory Community Mapping. In 2006, an Arizona university professor wrote in his paper, “The true and only reason why we execute Participatory mapping is to preserve power, retain land and support campaigns such as environmental, social or legal actions.”

The campaign pattern of indigenous groups is relatively simple. NGOs identify an environmental protective area. The zone will be subjected to a study and often developed into a network of relatively inexperienced rural residents exposed to the concept of mapping their land, the legal advocacy on how to form and make claims against either a company, or the state and campaign training. In due course a special committee is formed. Often called a Communications Forum or Peoples Forum the small group initiates protests supported by NGOs. Once a protest is launched foreign NGOs begin to circulate false claims by calling on the government to take action. The government usually does not bother and an escalation ensues.

By doubting and injecting mapping claims the aim is to force the government to redraw the official maps to adopt a loosely, often hearsay legal position suggested by the NGOs. Packaged as land tenure issues, spatial zoning, and other deliberate confusing terminologies the inexperienced government officials are caught off guard. The NGOs claim of land grabbing being massively underway in Indonesia is correct. The offenders are, however, scrupulous civil society organizations creating legal uncertainty, raising false expectation, and blackmailing the state and private enterprise.

NGOs should function to mitigate the conflict, instead of feeding disputes. When these land conflicts are politicized, “frankincense” farmers will lose.

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