Wising up to Caribbean frankincense

Following the edge of the Forest Reserve on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, Adams Toussaint pointed to a startling trail of destruction. One tree after another was covered in slashes and cavities. Some had even snapped in two, leaving only a ragged stump. A sweet woody odour hung in the humid air.

Adams— Chief Forestry Officer and a keen naturalist— had studied Protium attenuatum for his Masters degree, and knew something had to be done to save these fragile and valuable trees.

Named from the French l’encens (incense), lansan trees belong to the frankincense family Burseraceae and produce a pungent white resin that makes an excellent incense. This is widely used by churches and by many Saint Lucians to ward off mosquitos or evil spirits.

Tappers extract the resin by cutting or removing the bark, returning about two weeks later to scrape off the congealed lumps.

Unfortunately, lansan trees are highly prone to decay and careless tapping can swiftly lead to death. Across most of their range in the Eastern Caribbean, these endangered trees have disappeared.

Only Saint Lucia and Dominica still have sizeable numbers left, and Saint Lucia’s population is in decline. Resin tapping has long been prohibited on state land, but that has proved difficult to enforce and, besides, nobody wished to deprive poor tappers of an important livelihood.

Lansan tree killed by overtapping. Credit: Jenny Daltry/FFI.

Lansan tree killed by overtapping. Credit: Jenny Daltry/FFI.

Seeking solutions

We posed ourselves the question of whether resin could be harvested without killing the trees.

The Global Trees Campaign and Defra’s Flagship Species Fund kindly sponsored our experimental study in Saint Lucia, which entailed studying over 370 lansan trees, tapped using 10 different methods, and carefully monitoring the resin yield and the tree growth and condition.

Tapping methods ranged from techniques customarily used by local tappers to ideas borrowed from the resin industry in other parts of the world. Every tree was tapped every two weeks and we monitored its condition closely. Forest officers and other staff from the Forest and Land Resources Department were ably assisted in the field by young volunteers from Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

This study was not without challenges. Only a few weeks into the start, Hurricane Tomas struck Saint Lucia. A dozen of our study trees were swept away by landslides and our team was cut off for more than a week. Later, the unexpected discovery of Endangered but potentially dangerous vipers Bothrops caribbaeus in our study site added a frisson while picking our way from one tree to another. Our team enjoyed working in the forest, however, and as the data accumulated, some interesting patterns started to emerge.

Of the 10 methods tested, one was the clear winner: the application of a weak acidic solution to a simple cut in the bark. This stimulated the trees to produce significantly more resin and yet the trees remained perfectly healthy (the acidic wash may have also helped to disinfect the cuts).

In contrast, methods traditionally employed by local tappers were highly damaging. Not only did these trees deteriorate and decay, but disease spread to non-tapped trees nearby.

Lansan seller in Castries Market, Saint Lucia. Credit: Jenny Daltry/FFI.

Lansan seller in Castries Market, Saint Lucia. Credit: Jenny Daltry/FFI.

Putting research into practice

Following on from this study, a new management plan for Saint Lucia lansan has been developed which sees local tappers becoming professionally trained and licensed to use our recommended, and very productive, method of extraction.

Every tapper will be granted an area of forest which they can use and help to protect in cooperation with the Saint Lucia Forests and Land Resources Department. Lansan trees are also being planted by the department as part of post-hurricane reforestation efforts.

The early success of the project has created a buzz within the government department as, Alfred Prospere, Deputy Chief Forest Officer, explains, “We are now working with the very people who were threatening the trees to ensure they are conserved and used sustainably. For me personally I have gained a lot of knowledge about this species and learned how, with the aid of this research, we can manage and conserve it effectively for the future.”

This project is furthermore being viewed as a model for other threatened resources in Saint Lucia. Monty Karl Augustin, head of the new Green Economy unit, said “This fits the Forestry Department’s new strategic plan, developed with support from FFI, to enable local people to benefit from forest products and services and hence gain a clear incentive to keep even our lands forested for the future. The lansan initiative is leading the way, and we hope other species, and other countries, will follow”.

These are still early days but thanks to our success in finding an effective and tree-friendly way of harvesting resin, Saint Lucia has the makings of a win-win-win: for the tappers, for the communities who traditionally use incense, and for the conservation of these globally Endangered trees.

Adams Toussaint (Saint Lucia Forestry Department) with one of the study trees. Credit: Jenny Daltry/FFI.

Adams Toussaint (Saint Lucia Forestry Department) with one of the study trees. Credit: Jenny Daltry/FFI.

Want to find out more? This study has been published in a special issue on trees in Oryx, the International Journal of Conservation. The full article – and 8 other articles on threatened tree conservation – can be downloaded for free from http://journals.cambridge.org/ffi/trees until the end of December 2015.