Commiphora resources in Kunene conservancies: The smell of success?

Managing rare endemic species: Black-faced dollar signs
July 6, 2012
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Managing rare endemic species: Black-faced dollar signs
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July 6, 2012

By Karen Nott and Barbara Curtis

To date most conservancies derive their income from wildlife and wildlife-based tourism. However, there is a need to diversify sources of income for the conservancy members, especially in areas with limited wildlife resources.

Indigenous plants and their products could contribute to income generation by conservancies. Namibia is currently developing a steady trade in plant products such as marula oil and melon-seed oil, while a host of other resources are being investigated and products developed. The IRDNC (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation) has started working with several conservancies in the Kunene Region to investigate the viability of developing Commiphora resources for income generation.

The resins of many woody species from Africa and Asia are used commercially in the pharmaceutical, food, cosmetics and perfume industries. Members of the Burseraceae family are the source of the well-known myrrh and frankincense of the Bible. The best-known examples are myrrh from Commiphora myrrha and C. guidotti, frankincense from Boswellia spp and balm of Gilead from C. gileadensis.

It is documented that Commiphora species in the Kunene Region have long been used by Himba women as the major ingredient of their perfumes. The IRDNC has considered investigating these species as a potential source of income for Himba communities, but was reluctant to do so until appropriate institutional arrangements were in place for the sustainable management of the resource, should it be harvested. With the registration of conservancies, the necessary management structures are now in place and the investigation was launched at the end of 2004.

In Himba communities women are the managers of the plant resources and are responsible for the harvesting of the Commiphora resins. Hence this work focused on the women in the two selected conservancies, Orupembe and Sanitatas.

Commiphora wildii (omumbiri) was identified as the most important resin-producing plant by these two conservancies. In areas where omumbiri does not occur, Commiphora virgata (omumbara) is used. Omumbiri is a low-growing shrub with thick, semi-succulent stems, branching near the ground. Most of these plants tend to grow horizontally, close to the ground, with a few branches growing upward. Occasionally they are more erect. Omumbara is a taller shrub with a more erect growth form. Both are endemic to Namibia, but omumbara has a wider distribution than omumbiri.

Mapping and gathering information from the community using participatory rural appraisal (PRA) activities were carried out with the women. Questionnaires were compiled and the women and a few men were interviewed. Aspects of the harvesting of resin were also quantified. Concurrently, the population density and size of individuals of Commiphora species within each of these two conservancies was assessed to estimate the extent of the resource currently being used by conservancy members.

The omumbiri resin is used by placing it at the bottom of a container made from cow horn. Animal fat and ochre is then placed in the container. The fragrance of the resin permeates the ochre and animal-fat mixture so that when it is rubbed on the skin, it has a pleasant smell. Himba women rub their skins with this mixture on a daily basis.

Results obtained from the Orupembe and Sanitatas surveys:

• All women interviewed use the resin from omumbiri for perfume and all rated omumbiri as the most important perfume plant used.

• Omumbiri resin is harvested in the hot, dry season (from October to December) when temperatures start rising. The plants continue producing resin and further harvesting could take place until the rains begin. During this time, Himba communities all live around the permanent water points where most of the harvesting takes place.

• The local availability of the resource far exceeds the local demand at present. Most women (89%) go out once a season and within a morning have collected enough for their own needs for the year.

• The density of omumbiri plants varied within each of the conservancies but the overall densities measured compare favourably with densities for similar species in harvested areas elsewhere in Africa. Overall the density of omumbiri in the Orupembe Conservancy was 47 plants per hectare and in Sanitatas 25 plants per hectare.

• Omumbiri resin is harvested by picking it up from the ground below the plant or by picking it off the branches. Everyone interviewed confirmed that non-destructive methods of harvesting were used and that only naturally exuded resin was collected. Since the resource is available in far greater quantities than is needed, there is no need to scarify or damage the plants to encourage greater production.

• It takes about four hours to harvest one litre of resin and about 85 millilitres were harvested from each plant, although this does not reflect the total amount produced during the season but rather what was available for harvesting at this early stage of the harvesting season.

• Harvesting of resin seems to be for own use only or for sharing with friends or family members who may not be able to collect for themselves. No evidence could be found for regular trade with omumbiri resin and no local price could be established.

• The plant sub-committees in each of the conservancies provide a mechanism for the sustainable utilisation and management of this resource should it become a commercially viable enterprise for these two communities.

If the resource is to be exploited commercially, it will be necessary to extend the surveys to other conservancies where omumbiri occurs. This information will inform marketing activities and also guide price negotiations. At present similar surveys are being conducted in the Puros, Marienfluss and Okondjombo conservancies.

This work was funded by Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) and WWF People and Plants.

This article appeared in the 2006/7 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.


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