Sudan’s prized gum trees avoid drought, but workers wither

Sudan’s prized gum trees avoid drought, but workers wither

Gum arabic, a resin extracted from the acacia tree, is used in everything from soft drinks to pharmaceuticals, but for world leaders

Gum arabic, a resin extracted from the acacia tree, is used in everything from soft drinks to pharmaceuticals, but for the world’s top producer, Sudan, it is also seen as a key weapon in the fight against desertification.

A vast belt of trees vital to the world’s production of soft drinks is helping Sudanese farmers adapt to climate change, but in the harsh drylands many are reluctant to embark on the trade.

Gum arabic, golden beads of resin extracted from thorny acacias, is a virtually irreplaceable emulsifying agent for industry worldwide. The ingredient is used in everything from soft drinks to chewing gum to pharmaceuticals.

Sudan, in northeast Africa, is among the countries most affected by climate change, but it is also the world’s largest producer of raw chewing gum.

“It is an important tree to combat desertification as it is resistant to drought and also increases soil fertility, which is essential to increase crop production,” said Fatma Ramly, coordinator of the Gum Arabic Farmers Association. , which has seven million members.

To harvest the amber-colored resin, farmers must endure the same extreme weather conditions as their trees.

“We worked for hours under a scorching sun,” said Mohammed Moussa, who collects resin in the Demokaya state research forest, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the North Kordofan state capital, El Obeid.

Moussa faces a constant struggle with water scarcity in much of the Sudanese desert. The proceeds from his trees barely “provide enough money to buy water to see us through the fall rainy season.”

‘Laborious’

Recorded temperatures in the Kordofan region of Sudan have risen by almost two degrees Celsius in less than three decades, more than double the global average, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Sudan's gum arabic belt, which covers about 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 sq mi) from Gedaref in the east to Darfur or

Sudan’s gum arabic belt, which covers some 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles) from Gedaref in the east to Darfur on the Chadian border, has been hit hard by climate change that has seen increasing desert encroachment.

“Water scarcity is one of the key challenges for people” living in the acacia area, said Madani Ismail of the state Agricultural Research Corporation.

Farmers also have to deal with wide fluctuations in the price of gum on world commodity markets.

Forty-five kilograms (100 pounds) of raw chewing gum can cost between 22,000 and 25,000 Sudanese pounds ($43), depending on the price of the day.

The rebate barely covers the cost of production for Abdelbaqi Ahmed, 52, who owns a 28-hectare (70-acre) plot of acacia trees in Botei, Northern Kordofan.

He grows other crops to help increase his income from trees, the bark of which he cuts with a “sunki”, a sharp blade attached to a long wooden shaft capable of reaching to the top of the tree.

“It’s a laborious task,” said Ahmed, who sometimes hires others to help with the tapping. “So it’s usually not worth it.”

Others cannot be disturbed at all.

Some cut down the trees for building materials or firewood. Many work in the nearby gold mines, like four of Ahmed’s five sons.

For Abdallah Babiker, who also works at Demokaya, it’s the same. His three sons would rather pan for gold than tend acacia trees.

“They want a job that pays more,” said Babiker, 72.

Sudanese exports of raw chewing gum totaled $110 million in 2021, according to central bank figures, making it one of the country's largest.

Sudanese exports of raw chewing gum totaled $110 million in 2021, according to central bank figures, making it one of the country’s top foreign exchange earners.

export leader

Since South Sudan seceded a decade ago, taking its vast oil reserves with it, gum arabic has been one of Sudan’s main sources of hard currency.

Exports totaled 88,000 tons in 2021, earning $110 million, according to central bank figures.

That income has become even more important since international donors cut aid following a 2021 military coup led by army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

Sudanese exports account for 70 percent of world chewing gum supplies, according to AFD, the French development agency.

Their importance to the world economy earned them a special exemption from the US trade embargo imposed during the three-decade rule of now-ousted strongman Omar al-Bashir.

Efforts have been made to counteract deforestation by increasing farmers’ income.

“We’ve been trying to replant trees in areas that experienced decline and to prevent the gum arabic belt from receding,” Ramly said.

Sudan’s gum arabic belt covers some 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles) from Gedaref in the east through Kordofan to Darfur on the Chadian border.

Farmers say it's hard to persuade the younger generation that there is an economic future in gum production despite the environment.

Farmers say it’s hard to persuade the younger generation that there’s an economic future in chewing gum production despite the environmental benefits.

FAO has launched a $10 million project with the Sudan Forest Authority to support farmers and protect trees.

Acacia increases “soil moisture retention”, which helps farmers’ other crops, the FAO said.

The project, which seeks to reforest 125,000 hectares (310,000 acres), is part of the larger Great Green Wall project, which aims to stem encroachment from the desert by planting trees from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa.

The challenge now is to persuade young people that they can make a living from chewing gum production.

Nearly “everyone doing this job is over 60,” Ramly said.

Ismail agreed. “Young people … often see it as unrewarding,” he said.

© 2023 AFP

Citation: Sudan’s prized gum trees avoid drought, but workers wither (January 22, 2023) Retrieved January 22, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-01-sudan-priized- gum-trees-ward.html

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