Gum Arabic: The Next Conflict Resource?

According to a report by the BBC, ongoing fighting in the Darfur region of South Sudan is being fuelled in part by demand for gum arabic. The BBC notes that more than 60 people have died in fighting for control of an arid region of Darfur between two groups seeking to control an area of pasture and acacia trees from whose sap the gum is made.

Gum arabic is a popular stabilizer used in many soda drinks, gumdrops, marshmallows, M&Ms. It has other non-food uses as well, including in show polish, lickable adhesives on stamps or envelopes, and in various printing processes. Sudan is the world’s leading producers of gum Arabic, accounting for approximately 80 percent of global output. An estimated 5 million Sudanese farmers depend on gum Arabic for their livelihoods.

Interestingly, Sudan’s control of the world’s gum arabic supplies has given it a degree of leverage in global politics. In 1997, when the US Congress was looking to impose sanctions on the Sudanese government for supporting terrorism (and for giving refuge to Osama bin Laden), the beverage industry successfully campaigned to limit the sanctions and exclude trade in gum arabic from the list of embargoed items. As a result, Sudan was largely spared the real impact of the sanctions.

Neither Coca-Cola nor Pepsi will confirm the source of their gum Arabic, though given Sudan’s dominant position in global production it seems unlikely they can avoid sourcing at least some of their supplies from the country.

When people learned that the wars in Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and elsewhere were being funded through “blood diamond” sales,  a campaign was launched to stop the practice. The Kimberly Process, however imperfect, was the result. Then there were conflict resources (think coltan used to make cell phones and other consumer electronics and used to finance the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and later “blood chocolate” in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. One wonders when gum Arabic will make the list of conflict resources.

(This story was originally blogged at Global Food Politics and is reprinted here by permission).

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