14 February 2023

In Sudan, gum arabic cultivation promotes soil conservation


As the world’s second-largest producer of gum arabic, Sudan is called upon to protect acacia trees, the plants from which the substance is generated and which have always proved an effective weapon in countering desertification

by Matteo Cavallito


Producers in Sudan, one of the countries most affected by climate change, can still count on an important ally in countering desertification: gum arabic. This product, consisting of a resin extracted from acacia trees, is used in a variety of sectors, from the food industry to pharmaceuticals. Also attracting the interest of observers, however, are the properties of the plants that generate it.

Acacia, in fact, “is drought resistant and also increases the soil fertility, essential to increasing crop production,” Fatma Ramly, coordinator of the Gum Arabic Farmers’ Association, told Agence France Press. The problem, however, is that people working in the sector appear increasingly reluctant to engage in this activity. And not without consequences.

The climate effect

According to the FAO, France Press says, temperatures recorded in Sudan’s Kordofan region, where the acacia trees grow, have increased by nearly two degrees in less than three decades, more than twice the global average. Increasing desertification is hitting the area hard, leading to severe water shortages and the need for workers to deal with increasingly extreme conditions.

Forced to work for hours in the sun, harvesters have to allocate significant sums of money to acquire sufficient water resources for the months before the rainy season in the fall. Rising costs thus reduce net earnings from the sale of rubber. The uncertainty that characterizes this activity and price fluctuations on the global market make harvesting increasingly unattractive. So much so that new generations tend to leave the industry to pursue other activities.

A contribution to Africa’s Green Wall

Known as the Gum arabic belt, the area characterized by the massive presence of acacia trees stretches across the country for about 500,000 square kilometers from the western border with Chad to the eastern border with Ethiopia.

The area is part of the broader Great Green Wall, that 7,600-kilometer-long strip that crosses Sub-Saharan Africa from coast to coast and is a check against desertification. As well as a tool to counter the degradation of ecosystems and biodiversity, protect food security, ensure water for future generations, and combat global warming.

To protect the integrity of the area, FAO has launched a project to “enhance the adaptive capacity of local communities and restoring the carbon sink potential of the Gum Arabic belt, as part of efforts to expand Africa’s Great Green Wall.” The initiative, funded with $10 million, is being developed in line “with national adaptation and mitigation priorities focused on building the climate resilience of local communities and ecosystems, restoring gum agroforestry systems, and reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.”

Il tracciato della Grande Muraglia Verde africana

The layout of Africa’s Great Green Wall

Gum arabic plays an essential role in the Sudanese economy

Sudan is currently the world’s second largest exporter of gum arabic. In 2020, the last year for which official figures are available, the country contributed about 30 percent of global demand with $102 million revenues. Only France, the leading producer with a market share of about 41 percent, recorded higher revenues ($137 million). According to the FAO, resin extraction from acacia trees is responsible for 38 percent of Sudanese farmers’ income.

The U.N. organization’s project aims to “to enhance rural smallholder households’ resilience to climate change through climate-resilient gum agroforestry and reforestation on 125,000 hectares accompanied by smallholder gum value chain interventions, and by rehabilitating livestock corridors and restoring 151,000 hectares of associated rangelands, which will improve livestock mobility, enhance the resilience of pastoralists to climate shocks, and take the pressure off gum agroforestry systems, thereby reducing emissions from land use change.”