In late May, over 60 people were killed in Darfur as tribes battled over land used to produce gum arabic. This food product stabilizer, which comes from the acacia tree’s sap, has long been heralded as a solution to Sudan’s economic problems–the country is the world’s largest producer of the valuable substance, found in everything from soda to chewing gum. You already know about blood diamonds: meet gum arabic, the conflict resource du jour.
Gum arabic has been used commercially since 2,000 BC, when Egyptians reportedly started putting the substance in adhesives, food, and paint. The name “gum arabic” comes from the European traders who imported the substance from Arab countries, including Sudan. The substance doesn’t look like much–it’s colorless, odorless, and tasteless. But it’s one of the Swiss army knives of natural gums, which are useful for a huge variety of purposes: as a binder in watercolor painting; an emulsifier for soda; a thickening agent for chewing gum, fillings, and icings; a water-soluble binder for fireworks, and much more.
In the final two decades of the 19th century, gum arabic exports from Sudan were estimated to be between 2,000 and 7,000 tons. By the end of the 1960s, that number ballooned to 62,000 tons. These days, Sudan is still pumping out the gum arabic–Reuters estimated earlier this year that farmers would produce 80,000 metric tons of the stabilizer in the 2012/2013 growing season. Between 2009 and 2011, gum arabic exports in Sudan grew 120%, according to the World Bank (exact numbers are a bit fuzzy).
Gum arabic production has been one of the only economic constants in a country that’s constantly fraught with conflict. An article in a 2005 issue of Saudi Aramco World (it’s actually an interesting read) celebrates the growth of the substance’s use worldwide:
“New industrial uses are likely to ensure growing demand,” says Drew Davis of the US National Soft Drink Association. “The soft drink industry is growing all the time. Production of chocolate and other candy is growing. A growing global middle class, increasingly educated, is driving the demand for printed media. Better health care increases the consumption of pharmaceuticals. Scarcely any industry now using gum arabic is in decline,” he observed.
Gum arabic is Sudan’s oil–it is so important to everything we consume in the West that we’re willing to overlook the country’s other moral violations. As Reuters points out, the U.S. exempted gum arabic from a 1997 trade embargo in the country, enacted because of its terrible human rights record. And don’t think Sudan hasn’t noticed: in 2007, John Ukec Lueth Ukec, the country’s U.S. ambassador, threatened to halt gum arabic exports if the U.S. imposed sanctions because of the Darfur genocide. From the Washington Post:
“I want you to know that the gum arabic which runs all the soft drinks all over the world, including the United States, mainly 80 percent is imported from my country,” the ambassador said after raising a bottle of Coca-Cola.
A reporter asked if Sudan was threatening to “stop the export of gum arabic and bring down the Western world.”
“I can stop that gum arabic and all of us will have lost this,” Khartoum Karl warned anew, beckoning to the Coke bottle. “But I don’t want to go that way.”
As diplomatic threats go, that one gets high points for creativity: Try to stop the killings in Darfur, and we’ll take away your Coca-Cola.
Keeping all of this in mind, it shouldn’t be surprising that Darfur tribes are now fighting over the substance. Gum arabic is only one of the resources being fought over in Darfur, where tribes previously armed by Khartoum to fight non-Arab rebels have started battling each other.
So this is the quandary: How can companies that tout social responsibility accept gum arabic from a country where people are killing each other for resources? The 64 people killed in the latest gum arabic conflict is nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands of people estimated to have been killed in the ongoing conflict in Darfur over the past decade. But as long as there is conflict in Sudan, gum arabic will remain a tantalizing resource for warring factions to fight over.