Consumables:  Gum arabic

What is gum arabic?

Gum arabic; Acacia trees

Gum arabic is the sap which comes out of Acacia trees. It is used in food, soft drinks, medicines and cosmetics. The Acacia trees are found in abundance in Sudan and South Sudan. (Photograph: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters, via The Guardian)

Gum arabic is a gum made from the hardened sap of two species of the acacia tree. The tree grows across the Sahel region of Africa which stretches from Senegal to Sudan. 80% of the world’s gum arabic is sourced from a single country; Sudan. Gum arabic has been an important crop for peasants in arid and semi arid regions for thousands of years and is an important source of income in many areas where other profit generating activities are unavailable. It is estimated that 5 million Sudanese farmers depend on gum arabic for their livelihoods. Indeed as of July 2013 the Gum Arabic Council based in Khartoum, Sudan, reported that exports of the substance have reached 50,000 tons per year, alongside a 10% increase in local consumption.

Where do I use gum arabic?

The substance is mainly known for its use as a food additive, in products like Coca Cola, but it also has a multitude of uses including pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and ink.

What is the impact of gum arabic production?

Sudan’s monopoly on the production of gum arabic has given it an unprecedented degree of leverage in international politics. An example of this was when in 1997 the US Congress was looking to impose sanctions on the Sudanese government for supporting terrorism (and for giving refuge to Osama bin Laden), the beverage industry successfully campaigned to limit the sanctions and exclude trade in gum arabic from the list of embargoed items. As a result, Sudan was largely spared the real impact of the sanctions.

Gum arabic production has become even more important to the Sudanese economy due to the loss of oil resources to South Sudan.

Gum Arabic In May 2013 Sudan’s Gimir and Bani Halba tribes launched a gun attack in the Katila region, with the aim of seizing acacia tree sites and control over the gum arabic industry, resulting in 64 deaths on both sides. There is increasing fear from environmental groups and political experts that Gum Arabic is becoming the new conflict resource, with many concerned that it could fuel corruption and violence on a similar scale to the blood diamond conflicts in 1990s Sierra Leone.

In terms of the environment the production of gum arabic has a positive impact, as it has to some extent protected the acacia trees which produce it. There are fears that any loss of Sudan’s gum arabic trade could have adverse affects on its environment.

Currently only around 5% of the land in Sudan is arable, and everyday more and more forest land is being cleared to meet expanding mechanized farming needs as well as increasing needs for fuel wood. If the tree were to lose its value as an export, it too might suffer the same fate as other forests throughout Sudan.

However, a continuing gum arabic trade in Sudan could also have adverse environmental impacts. Already the lucrative gum arabic trade has moved growers toward cultivating a particular type of gum arabic that is widely considered to be the best quality. Are there ecological implications to the removal of other species of the acacia tree and replacing them all with a single species? Will having only a single species of tree in a region adversely affect the soil composition and perhaps alter the soil’s ability to support the desired species?

Resolution:Possible?

There has been a renewed focus on ensuring small scale producers are reaping the benefits of gum arabic production. Organisations such as the Sudan Multi-Donor Trust Fund (MDTF) have established schemes to increase the incomes of gum arabic producers through more efficient production and marketing. The four pilot schemes rolled out from 2010-2011 succeeded in raising annual incomes by 65%. Crucially there has also been a growth in the number of local Gum Arabic Producers Associations (GAPAs) whose membership is open to all local gum arabic producers. The provision of grants to successful GAPAs has allowed several communities in Sudan to purchase tractors, small stores and water reservoirs. However an article by Edward Barbier suggests that while returns from gum arabic production may appear favourable it is a crop that remains disproportionately affected by global demand and real producer price.