A vast belt of trees vital to global production of sparkling drinks is helping Sudanese farmers adapt to climate change, but in the harsh dry lands many are reluctant to take up the trade.
Gum arabic, golden blobs of resin extracted from thorny acacia trees, is an irreplaceable emulsifying agent for the global industry. The ingredient is used in everything from soft drinks to chewing gum and pharmaceuticals.
Sudan, in north-east Africa, is one of the countries hardest hit by climate change but it is also the largest producer of raw gum in the world.
“It is an important tree to combat desertification because it is resistant to drought – and it also increases soil fertility, which is essential to increase crop production,” said Fatma Ramly, coordinator of the Gum Arabic Farmers Association, which there are seven million members.
To extract the amber colored resin, farmers must endure the same climatic extremes as their tree.
“We work for hours until the end of the sun,” said Mohammed Moussa, who collects resin at the state-owned Demokaya research forest, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the North Kordofan state capital, El Obeid.
Moussa constantly struggles with the water shortage in the mostly desert area of Sudan. His earnings from the trees barely provide “enough money to buy water to cover us until the rainy season in the autumn”.
Record temperatures in Sudan’s Kordofan region 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).
“Water scarcity is one of the main challenges for people” living in the acacia belt, said Madani Ismail, of the state-run Agricultural Research Corporation.
Farmers also have to contend with large fluctuations in the price of gum on world commodity markets.
Forty-five kilograms (100 pounds) of raw gum can fetch between 22,000 and 25,000 Sudanese pounds ($43), depending on the price of the day.
The return barely covers the cost of production for Abdelbaqi Ahmed, 52, who has a 28-hectare (70-acre) plot of acacia trees in Botei, North Kordofan.
He grows other crops to help increase his income from the trees, and cuts its bark with a “sunki” – a sharp blade attached to a long wooden spindle that can reach high up in the tree.
“It’s a laborious task,” said Ahmed, who sometimes hires others to help with the tapping. “So it usually doesn’t pay off.”
Others can’t be bothered at all.
Some cut the trees down for building materials or firewood. Many of them work in the nearby gold mines, like four of Ahmed’s five sons.
For Abdallah Babiker, who also works in Demokaya, it is the same. His three sons would rather be looking for gold than tending acacia trees.
“They want work that earns more,” said Babiker, 72.
Since the breakup of South Sudan ten years ago, taking with it its vast oil reserves, gum arabic has become one of Sudan’s main foreign currency earners.
Exports totaled 88,000 tonnes in 2021, earning $110 million, according to central bank figures.
That income is even more important since international donors cut aid after a military coup in 2021 led by army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
Sudan’s exports account for 70 percent of global gum supplies, according to AFD, the French development agency.
Because of their importance to the world economy, they received a special exemption from the US trade embargo imposed during the now-deposed three-decade rule of strongman Omar al-Bashir.
Efforts have been made to combat deforestation by increasing farmers’ incomes.
“We are trying to replant trees in areas where there was decline, and prevent the gum arabic belt from disappearing,” said Ramly.
The gum arabic belt of Sudan covers about 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 sq mi) from Gedaref in the east through Kordofan to Darfur on the border with Chad.
The EBT has launched a $10 million project with the Sudanese forestry authority to support farmers and protect the trees.
Acacia boosts “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 wider Great Green Wall project, which aims to curb desert encroachment by planting trees from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa.
The challenge now is to convince young people that they can make a living in gum production.
Almost “all of the people doing this job are over 60”, said Ramly.
Ismail agreed. “Young people often see it as unpleasant,” he said.
© 2023 AFP
Quote: Sudan’s prized gum trees don’t survive drought but workers have recovered (2023, January 22) on January 22, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-01-sudan-prized-gum-trees- ward.html
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