In 2007, as Sudan faced Western pressure and sanctions over the bloody conflict in Darfur, the country’s ambassador to the United States famously held up a Coca-Cola bottle at a news conference and declared: “I can stop that gum arabic, and all of us will have lost this.”
What John Ukec Lueth Ukec was referring to was one of Sudan’s leading agricultural exports: gum arabic, a natural emulsifier tapped from acacia trees that has had countless uses throughout history – from ancient Egyptians depending on it for mummification to more recent uses in anything from shoe polish and sweets to medicines and cosmetics.
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The soft drinks industry relies heavily on this stabiliser, essentially an edible glue that prevents sugar from falling to the bottom of fizzy drinks and crystallising.
Sudan is the world’s top producer of gum arabic, accounting for roughly 70 percent of global gross exports. Millions of people in the country earn their incomes directly or indirectly from this industry.
The E414 lobby
During the 1990s and 2000s, the Sudanese government tried to use gum arabic as leverage over US administrations sanctioning it. Lobbyists in Washington worked to ensure that there was an exemption for the substance, also known as E414.
“In past periods of war and crisis in Sudan, the government of Sudan and international companies were reasonably successful in preventing Sudanese gum arabic production and exports from being adversely affected,” Cameron Hudson, a senior associate with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Al Jazeera.
“They were carved out of US sanctions, and production never declined dramatically and, therefore, never substantially put at risk the production of those consumer products that were dependent upon the ingredient.”
But fast forward 15 years from that news conference and the future of Sudanese gum arabic production is threatened by the vicious conflict that erupted on April 15 between the country’s army and a powerful paramilitary known as the Rapid Support Forces.
The war has killed thousands of people, displaced millions and exacerbated an acute humanitarian crisis that has left nearly half the population in need of international food aid. Amid the turmoil, Sudanese gum arabic producers report a price collapse of about 60 percent.
Akol Miyen Kuol, a South Sudanese author and journalist who has been following developments in the industry, told Al Jazeera that the war “has, with no doubt, affected the gum arabic trade negatively”.
He said the main areas of production – Kordofan, Darfur and el-Gadarif – have been hit by the conflict “whether directly or indirectly”.
“If the fighting does not stop at any time soon, the production of gum arabic will totally collapse because the two major regions of production – namely Darfur and Kordofan – cannot go on with the collection due to the safety issue for the workers,” Kuol said.
Stockpiles running out
The violence plaguing Sudan makes it dangerous to transport gum arabic to Port Sudan, the country’s main seaport. Even those willing to accept the risk of travelling in the current environment are challenged by the fact that so many trucks have been destroyed or hijacked since fighting broke out in mid-April, according to Eugene Puryear, a Sahel analyst at BreakThrough News.
“In so far as people might be willing to drive, oftentimes finding transportation is tricky. Of course, for the farmers themselves, similar to the truck drivers, they have to contend with the fact that you don’t know exactly what you’re going to see on the road,” Puryear told Al Jazeera.
“The access to transportation has been significantly lessened and then, ultimately, the price of the product has gone down to such a degree that it’s not even necessarily worth it to bring it to market – all of which have significantly affected the flow of the trade.”
The head of Sudan’s Gum Arabic Council, Mostafa el-Sayyed Khalil, has been quoted as saying Sudan exported 60,000 tonnes of the natural emulsifier last year.
Acquiring credible statistics is difficult as much of the gum arabic production takes place in parts of Sudan beyond the central government’s control, including areas held by various non-state actors.
Still, the large beverage companies have reportedly stockpiled three to six months of gum arabic supplies and have yet to face any major issues. But without an end to Sudan’s crisis in sight, they could face serious problems, potentially not too far down the line, according to analysts.
“The price crash severely threatens the future of this industry, dominated by Sudan since the 1950s, as producers accustomed to a plentiful supply of relatively inexpensive gum arabic will eventually seek to diversify both sources and ingredients used in production,” William Lawrence, a professor of international affairs at American University in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.
With supplies dropping, observers warned that there could be serious limitations on the abilities of soda makers and pharmaceutical companies worldwide to make their products. While finding a replacement for gum arabic, such as a starch-based stabiliser, might be in the cards, this would not happen overnight.
Puryear said the longer the conflict stretches on, the more stress there is going to be on affected businesses.
It’s not just war that’s the problem
The impact of the conflict on Sudan’s gum arabic trade unfolds within the wider context of the country’s socioeconomic challenges and recent political developments as well as the dangers of climate change.
Sudanese farmers faced enormous challenges even before the war broke out, with many being paid so little that they struggled to make a living.
In recent years, young people began leaving to work in gold mines, where opportunities are more lucrative, just as acacia trees were being cut down for building materials, firewood and charcoal.
“Already the exploitation of farmers was having a negative impact on the trade, and this was, unfortunately, accelerating that trend in terms of what we’ve seen vis-à-vis gum arabic,” Puryear said.
There have been other factors.
In Darfur and elsewhere in the country, there have been increased levels of violence driven by conflicts over water, limited land and natural resources as the planet becomes increasingly climate-stressed.
Worsening desertification, meanwhile, means that more Sudanese will head to urban areas where work is not readily available.
“Some of the climate change elements could have big knock-on effects, and that’s being discussed a little bit less in the context of what’s happening with the trade. But it’s a big aspect of it,” Puryear said.
“Ultimately, it could increase the level of deprivation and environmentally based internal displacement of people, increase slums, increase unemployment – all of these other big challenges that will be harder to face in the context of Sudanese development,” he said.
The crisis in the industry amid the ongoing conflict speaks to wider problems since the military removal of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir in 2019 in the wake of popular protests.
Among the multiple issues that drove the mass demonstrations were those pertaining to agricultural resources, land, infrastructure and the ease with which foreign companies took control of the country’s resources.
“The conflict now is intensifying the decline of the industry, which is one of the major industries of Sudan, and at the centre of the controversies in the country about income inequality, how resources are distributed and how the country should develop,” Puryear said.
“You see … how so much of the debate over how Sudan moves on … is deeply rooted in the fundamental issues of how trades like [gum arabic] should be structured, should be run and who should benefit from the huge amount of money that is made from them.”