Tag Archives: conflict resources

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).

Making Progress on Conflict Resources

Open Pit Mine Workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Open Pit Mine Workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

A 2012 column by New York Times op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof drew national attention to the problem of conflict resources. We had long been familiar with blood diamonds—diamonds mined from conflict zones and sold to finance civil wars and militias—in places like Sierra Leone and Liberia. Indeed, in response to popular outcry, the diamond industry in 2003 agreed to establish the Kimberley Process, which was intended to prevent conflict diamonds from entering global diamond markets, thereby depriving them of their value.

Although certainly far from perfect, the Kimberley Process illustrates the possibility of pressure by nongovernmental organizations in affecting the development of international regimes. In the case of the Kimberley Process, consumer groups and various human rights NGOs were able to convince diamond retailers that the value of their product would be negatively affected by its association with violence and civil war (hence term “blood diamond”). This led to the creation of a voluntary certification scheme instituted by diamond traders.

More recently, other conflict resources have garnered increased attention. Last year, Oxfam used the term “blood chocolate” to draw attention to human rights violations by cocoa producers in the Ivory Coast. And several groups have called used the term “blood phones” and “conflict minerals” to highlight the human rights violations and the sale of resources mined by militia groups to finance conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where more than 5.4 million people have died as a result of war-related causes, including disease and malnutrition, since 1998.

Much like the agreement with the Kimberley Process, though, some progress is being made. The Enough Project on Thursday released a report congratulating several electronics manufacturers, including Intel, HP, Dell, Microsoft, and Apple, on progress made in their efforts to trace the source of metals used in their products, but noting that much work remained to be done.

This process would allow them to certify resources sourced from countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo as “conflict free.” The DR Congo is the world’s primary producer of tantalum, a key component in the production of microprocessors, and is also a major world supplier for tungsten, tin and other important mineral resources. And rules included in financial reform legislation passed by the US Congress in 2010 would require companies to disclose whether they source minerals from conflict zones. Interestingly, students have been at the heart of the movement to require certification of minerals sourced from conflict zones.

What do you think? Should companies be required to certify their goods are not produced from resources sourced from conflict zones? Would you be willing to pay more for cell phones and other consumer electronics that were certified conflict free? Should the market decide? Or should government regulation mandate conflict-free production?