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Sudan War Impacts Availability of Gum Arabic, A Key Ingredient for Many Commercial Products
Sudan War Impacts Availability of Gum Arabic, A Key Ingredient for Many Commercial Products

The civil war and protracted violence in the Darfur region of Sudan, Africa, have adversely impacted the collection and exportation of a lucrative natural product, gum arabic, a tree resin used as an emulsifying agent in many commercial products. Both the subsistence farmers who collect the raw material and the trees that produce the valuable resin are fighting for their survival.1

Gum Arabic Business

Materials sold as gum arabic are derived from the resin of several species of acacia trees: the true, preferred gum arabic is derived from Acacia senegal (L.) Willd., Fabaceae. Other gums of commerce are derived from A. nilotica (L.) Willd. ex Delile, Fabaceae (often called gum arabic, but is actually Indian gum arabic) and A. seyal Delile, Fabaceae (also called gum arabic, but is actually talha). Gum arabic is also known commercially by the eponymous acacia, acacia gum, or Senegal gum due to its generic name.2

Gum arabic is one of Sudan�s chief export commodities and agriculture products.3 The Sudanese gum arabic is considered one of the world�s largest and most prized crops because of its quality and consistency.4 The Darfur region where most of the civil strife is occurring produces over two-thirds of the world�s supply of gum arabic.1

Due to the protracted violence and disruption of supply in the area, �Prices have tripled and quadrupled lately in response to events in the unfortunate Darfur region of the Sudan,� according to Peter Landes, President of KHL Flavors, Inc., of Maspeth, NY (Peter Landes [], e-mail, November 24, 2004).


Sudan is a vast and diverse country located in northern Africa between Egypt and Eritrea, next to the Red Sea. Geographically, it is roughly the size of France or a quarter of the United States.

Sudan has had a tumultuous history since it gained independence from Egypt and the United Kingdom in 1956. (It was formerly known as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and was administered by both countries.) Since then, Sudan has had a history of military regime changes and Islamic-influenced governments. The country has been engaged in a civil war since 1985, which has had a serious impact on the region.3

The current situation in the Darfur region is dire. The African farmers who harvest the gum arabic have either been displaced, murdered, or are unable to continue their work because of the recent violence. Similarly, the gum arabic trees have had to fight for survival with droughts and plagues of locusts. Thus, the people and their business suffer. The violence, however, compounds some of these hazards because the Sudanese refugees, who are more worried about their own survival than the gum business, have begun cutting down the valuable trees for firewood.1

In short, the most recent violence in the Sudan civil war has adversely impacted the people, their ability to collect and export gum arabic, and the business interests of several companies that depend upon the gum arabic to help produce their products.

Normally, the government and people of Sudan benefit significantly from the gum arabic business. Agriculture is crucial to the Sudanese economy; it provides jobs for 80 percent of the county�s eligible work force. In 1996, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency estimated that there were 11 million people in the total work force, with agriculture providing jobs for 8.8 million people.3

Gum arabic

Gum arabic is one of the most common of all gums. A gum is defined as �an adhesive substance of vegetable origin, mostly obtained as exudate from the bark of trees or shrubs belonging to the pea family�5 (Fabaceae, formerly Leguminosae). However, gums are also derived from trees in other families, e.g., myrrh gum from various species of Commiphora, which is in the Burseraceae family.

Gum arabic is a colorless, tasteless, cold water-soluble, polysaccharide. It is a multi-functional hydrocolloid (a substance that forms a gel with water) with a �highly branched arabino-galactan-protein complex.�6     

Acacia senegal trees, which flourish in the semi-arid areas of sub-Saharan Africa between 10 and 15 degrees north latitude, produce what may be the best quality gum arabic.1 This region, known as the gum belt, includes the African countries Chad, Eritrea, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sudan.3 The gum arabic trees are small trees or spiny shrubs,7 and they produce gum arabic only if they are in an unhealthy condition. The plant�s ability to produce the gum is improved by inclement conditions such as hot weather, lack of water, poor soil, etc. As a result, damaged trees can produce more gum.8

There are two stages to the collection of gum arabic. First, harvesters cut and strip pieces of bark from the trunks and branches of unhealthy trees. The trees weep the resin from the scars in the branches and trunk, forming �tears� of hardened amber-colored gum drops when the resin is exposed to the atmosphere. Next, harvesters return to collect the gum arabic drops or �tears� once they�ve dried.8,9 The tears are small (.75 to 3 inches in diameter), irregular-shaped, white- and/or yellow-tinged.7

A young gum arabic tree can produce 400 to 7,000 grams of gum arabic annually. The gum arabic season lasts from October through June, during which time the gum drops may be collected every 10 days. The gum cannot be harvested during the rainy season, when the trees are in full bloom.8

Gum arabic has a long history and has been used for a variety of purposes. The Egyptians used gum arabic in cosmetics, in inks for hieroglyphics,8 and to help with the mummification process. They also exported gum arabic, calling it kami, and they sold, traded, and used the product as a pigment binder and adhesive in painting. Gum arabic�s early trade routes inspired its early names, including the current moniker �arabic,� which it earned from the Arabian ports. In the Middle Ages, the gum was called �Turkey Gum� because it was shipped through the Turkish Empire, and later it became �Indian Gum� or �East Indian Gum� from its shipments through Bombay, India.8 In some forms of folk medicine the gum �tears� are also considered highly nutritious and may be valuable for nourishing sick patients.7

In modern times, gum arabic is used in a variety of products and industries, including the pharmaceutical, chemical, and the food and beverage industries, as well as in fine arts, restoration, hobbies, and leather processing.8

Gum arabic functions as an emulsifier in certain products. Emulsifiers and stabilizers are products that help improve the consistency of food products. Emulsifiers prevent separation of ingredients and extend storage life.10 Emulsifiers are useful because they encourage the suspension of one liquid in another, like the mixture of oil and water in products like margarine, shortening, ice cream, and salad dressing.10 Stabilizers help maintain the emulsified state in prepared products.

Each manufacturer creates a variety of gum arabic products for use in different consumer goods. For example, Tragacanth Importing Company or TIC Gums, of Belcamp, Maryland, manufactures different kinds of gum arabic for use in food and flavor emulsions, in meal replacement products, to coat cereal, snack foods, and confections, and for use in making baked goods like cakes and muffins, as well as in icings and frostings.6 Gums are used in pill manufacturing for coating and binding, as an emulsifier in processed foods, as a thickener in sauces, in creating various cosmetics, in the lithographic printing processes,5 in marbling colors, and to make adhesives and ink.11

Sudan Civil War

Gum arabic is not the only victim of recent violence in Sudan. Civil unrest and uncertainty plague the Darfur region of Sudan. In 2003, the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM),12 two African rebel groups, revolted against the Sudanese government.13 In response, the government hired the Janjaweed, a group of Arab militias, to help restore order and crush the rebellion of black farmers. The Janjaweed have been accused of killing and raping thousands of villagers after various rebel groups started fighting the Sudanese government last year.12 Reports from the United Nations estimate that at least 1.5 million have been affected by the insecurity and violence in all three states of Darfur. Specifically, there are estimates that at least 1.45 million residents have been displaced from their homes in the Sudan, and at least 200,000 of these refugees have fled to Chad.14

According to Naka Nathanial, New York Times online producer (oral communication, November 2004), the UN has called the Darfur situation �the greatest humanitarian disaster. The U.S. has been the largest provider of humanitarian aid, and there has been almost no participation from France and Germany. It wouldn�t take much effort. The people are suffering.� Nathanial accompanied Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, Nicholas Kristof who reported on the situation in Darfur. Nathanial produced Kristof�s multimedia package on Darfur called A Promise Unkept.15

Emmanuel Akwei Addo, the Independent Expert on the human rights situation in Sudan, told the UN General Assembly, �there were strong indications of such crimes, including murders, rapes, acts of torture and forcible displacement of citizens.�16 Some organizations are calling it genocide and others are calling it ethnic cleansing. It is the latest chapter in Africa�s longest war, in Africa�s largest country.

Current Status and Possible Terrorism Connection

Problems with gum arabic exportation and business interests began in November 1997 when the United States passed economic sanctions against Sudan because of suspected links between its government and terrorism. A market research report from P. L. Thomas & Co., Inc., an American importer of gum arabic, describes how this influences the gum arabic business: �Industry leaders have worked tirelessly and successfully to convince the U.S. State Department and Treasury Department that the embargo unfairly punishes a significant number of U.S. companies who process and use gum arabic without having any effect on total Sudan gum arabic exports.�4

Due to pressure from interested businesses, the United States House of Representatives passed legislation exempting gum arabic from the embargo.1,4,17 Some companies like Coca-Cola and Pfizer, Inc., reportedly rely heavily on supplies from the Darfur region for the gum arabic used in their products.1

On November 9, 2004, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan oversaw the signing of protocols in Abuja, Nigeria. The government of Sudan, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army, and the Justice and Equality Movement signed the protocols in an effort to improve the humanitarian and security situation in Darfur.18



1. Lacey M. A tree that supported Sudan becomes a war�s latest victim. New York Times. May 15, 2004:A1.

2. McGuffin M, managing ed; Kartesz JT, Leung AY, Tucker AO, taxonomic and technical eds. Herbs of Commerce. 2nd ed. Silver Spring, Maryland: American Herbal Products Association; 2000:4.

3. Central Intelligence Agency. Sudan. The World Factbook. Available at: Accessed November 14, 2004.

4.  P.L. Thomas & Co., Inc. Bright Prospects for the Sudan Gum Arabic Crop Bode well for International Trade. Sudan Gum Arabic Market Report. Available at: Accessed November 14, 2004.

5. Gum. Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed November 14, 2004.

6. TIC Gum. Pioneers of New Sources of Gum Arabic. Available at: Accessed November 14, 2004.

7. Grieve M. Acacia (Gum). A Modern Herbal. Available at: Accessed November 17, 2004.

8.GASID. Kordofan Gum Arabic. Available at: Accessed November 17, 2004.

9.Frontier Natural Brands. Gum Arabic Powder (Acacia senegal) 1 lb: K. Available at:;=145.0&CategoryID;=1000.0. Accessed November 17, 2004.

10. Emulsifier. Encyclopædia Britannica. Available at: Accessed November 14, 2004.

11. Roberts M, Etherington D. Gum Arabic. Bookbinding and the Conservation of books A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office; 1929. Available at: Accessed November 17, 2004.

12. United Nations. Annan hails new accords between Sudanese Government and Darfur rebels. United Nations News service. Available at:;=sudan&Cr1;=#. Accessed November 13, 2004.

13. Associated Press. U.S. pushes African Union to oversee Sudan war zone. The Available at: Accessed September 1, 2004.

14. United Nations. Humanitarian Fact-Sheet September 2004. United Nations News service. Available at: news/dh/sudan/humanassist.htm. Accessed November 1, 2004.

15. Kristof N. A Promise Unkept [multimedia]. New York Times. Available at:;=1103131026-PvJpJLKHPs2pl8ebIupmyw. Accessed December 15, 2004.

16.  United Nations. War crimes likely have occurred in Darfur, Sudan, UN Rights expert says. United Nations News service. Available at:;=sudan&Cr1;=&Kw1;=Sudan&Kw2;=war+crimes&Kw3;=. Accessed November 1, 2004.

17. Wolf F. Statement about Sudan and Gum Arabic [press release]. Washington, DC: United States House of Representatives; September 7, 2000. Available at: Accessed November 17, 2004.

18. Secretary-General welcomes signing of protocols on improvement of humanitarian, security situations in Darfur, Sudan [press release]. New York, NY: United Nations; October 11, 2004. Available at: Accessed November 14, 2004.