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Darfur war, mismanagement threaten key Sudan industry

Gum arabic, a ubiquitous ingredient, is the livelihood for millions

July 14, 2007|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

Umm Ruwaba, Sudan — FARMERS here call these sandblasted acacia orchards the "gardens of our grandfathers," and for centuries the sticky amber sap flowing from them helped to bind civilization.

Egyptian pharaohs used the stuff for hieroglyphic ink. Red Sea traders carried it to Europe, where it was used in oils and became known, somewhat inaccurately, as "gum arabic" because buyers believed it originated in the Middle East.

Today Sudan accounts for more than 60% of the world market in the all-purpose tree sap. Gum arabic from these fields of central Sudan keeps the ingredients of Coke from separating in the can; it allows Altoid mints to lock in that "curiously strong" flavor; it keeps oil and water mixed together in a stick of margarine and prevents mascara from clumping in the tube.

Gum arabic is so vital to Western consumers that U.S. lawmakers carved out an exemption for the commodity after President Clinton first imposed trade sanctions against Sudan in 1997, despite reports that Osama bin Laden had once dabbled in the industry. When President Bush recently tightened economic sanctions against Sudan to protest the conflict in Darfur, gum arabic suppliers were once again left off the list of targeted firms. The U.S. buys about one-quarter of Sudan's gum arabic.

The ancient industry is facing its biggest threat yet because of the conflict in Darfur and government mismanagement. Its future could affect not only the nearly 5 million Sudanese whose livelihoods depend upon the commodity, but also the price, quality and availability of hundreds of popular Western consumer products.

Since the war began between Darfur rebels and government-supported militias, known as janjaweed, harvesting has been difficult, if not impossible, in western Sudan, which accounted for a quarter of the country's gum arabic production.

Desperate displaced families in Darfur have resorted to cutting down trees for charcoal or firewood. What little gum arabic that can be produced in the volatile region is now smuggled across the border into Chad.

The conflict, termed genocide by the U.S., has resulted in more than 200,000 deaths since 2003, mostly from disease and hunger, and displaced 2 million people.

Last year, exports by Sudan's government-controlled Gum Arabic Co. fell to the lowest level on record, to less than 9,000 metric tons, compared with 30,000 tons in recent years and a peak of 50,000 in the 1960s.

The slump in sales has led to an unprecedented gum glut, forcing prices paid to farmers down so low that many say they won't bother to harvest this year.

Farmer Abdul Rahman, 65, said the current government-set price for a 100-pound sack of gum arabic was $37 versus the $225 he received five years ago. Harvesting is still done by hand. After making long cuts in the thorny trunks and branches, workers return three weeks later to pluck off the golden, crusty balls of gum that ooze to heal the wound.

Rahman is worried he'll barely earn enough this year to pay laborers. "It's not worth it anymore," he said. He and other local farmers say they may turn their attention to other crops, such as corn and sorghum, until gum prices rebound.

The village of Umm Ruwaba is a company town, and gum arabic has sustained the local economy for as long as anyone can remember. But lately there are fewer harvesting jobs for unskilled workers. Gum farmers sit idle in the main marketplace, pondering their next move. The once-bustling trading outposts are vacant except for the dusty stacks of 100-pound bags that nobody wants to buy.

"We're a simple people and don't understand what's going on," said Mustafa Musat, 53, a gum arabic trader in Umm Ruwaba. He said he suspected the slump was related to the Sudanese government's troubled relations with the international community over Darfur and other issues. "All I know is that when relations with America were good, prices were very high," he said.

Experts say the industry's biggest obstacle is government regulation. Though gum arabic trees are privately owned, most exports must be funneled through Gum Arabic Co., which is 30% owned by the government. In practice, the government has been able to control the industry, along with the handful of private exporters.

"It's like a cartel," said one gum arabic industry executive, who was not authorized by his company to speak publicly.

In recent years, the international market for gum arabic has been characterized by unpredictable swings in prices and production. A shortage in 2003 pushed prices in the international market to record highs of $5,000 a ton, up from an average of about $1,200. Last year, despite the glut, average prices offered by Gum Arabic Co. were about $2,200 a ton, according to company documents.

Sudanese officials blamed the 2003 shortage on drought, but buyers and academics suspected manipulation.

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