Crucial for the production of soft drinks around the world, gum arabic comes from the acacia tree in Sudan’s arid zones, where the tree is resistant to ever-increasing temperatures, but farmers now struggle to cultivate it.
Fatma Ramly, national coordinator of the Federation of Arab Gum Producers, which has seven million members, explains that the acacia gum tree “is an important tree to combat desertification because it resists drought and increases soil fertility, which is essential for increasing agricultural production.” .
Made from the hardened sap extracted from the acacia tree, gum arabic is an almost indispensable emulsifier for global industries. This natural ingredient is used in everything from soft drinks to chewing gum to medicine.
Sudan is proud to be the world’s leading producer of gum arabic, accounting for 70% of trade, according to the French Development Agency.
Chewing gum has even earned Sudan, under an international embargo for decades, a special exemption from the United States, whose food and pharmaceutical industries love it. It really is an essential component of…Coca-Cola!
But to harvest the precious sap, one must endure the same extreme climate conditions as acacia, one of the world’s most drought and climate change-adapted trees.
“We work for hours under the hot sun,” Moussa told AFP, eventually “earning enough to buy water until the rainy season.”
– Doubling of temperature –
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Agency, the increase in temperature recorded in Kordofan is twice the global average, or two additional degrees in less than three decades.
People struggle with arid climate and desertification. The drought is compounded by fluctuating global prices of gum arabic.
Therefore, many farmers prefer to cut down their acacias and sell them to make charcoal in order to get a more stable income or to work in the nearby gold mines. Like four of Abdelbaghi Ahmed’s five sons, they chose the hard work of mining rather than tending their father’s acacia trees.
The same for Abdallah Babiker: his three sons would rather dig a hole than climb an acacia tree. “They want a job that pays more,” the 72-year-old said.
Faced with this situation, Sudan, which will export 88,000 tons of gum arabic worth $110 million in 2021, is working to replace acacia trees that are cut down for firewood or construction, according to the Central Bank.
– Arabian sand belt –
“We worked to replant trees in damaged areas and keep the gum arabic belt from retreating,” said Ms. Ramly, who works for Sudan’s Forestry Department, referring to the nearly 500,000 square kilometer area. Gedaref near Darfur, Sudan bordering Chad, Ethiopia.
Recently, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) committed $10 million to the Department of Forestry to help acacia growers sustain their livelihoods. The aid is also intended to finance the “Great Green Wall”, a mega-project to cover the African belt of trees from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa to prevent ever-growing desertification.
“Drought is one of the main challenges for residents living in areas where acacia is cultivated,” Madani Ismail, an associate professor at the Public Agricultural Research Institute, told AFP.
Abdelbaghi Ahmed knows something about this, he has been cutting the bark of acacia trees for more than 30 years, twisting it into amber-colored balls to extract the quick-solidifying liquid.
“It was my family that taught me (this) hard work,” the 52-year-old man, who owns about 30 hectares of acacia trees planted in Botei village, told AFP.
Muhammad Musa taught his profession to his children “even if they are not interested. At least this way, if they have nothing else, they can use it.”