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Sudan’s prized gum trees avoid drought but workers wither away

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A vast belt of trees vital to global soft drink production is helping Sudanese farmers adapt to climate change, but in the harsh arid lands, many are reluctant to venture into the business.

Gum arabic, golden drops of resin extracted from thorny acacia trees, is a virtually irreplaceable emulsifying agent for the world industry. The ingredient is used in everything from soft drinks to chewing gum and pharmaceuticals.

Sudan, in northeast Africa, is among the countries hardest hit by climate change, but is also the world’s largest producer of raw gum.

“It is an important tree for combating desertification as it is drought resistant – and also increases soil fertility, essential for increasing agricultural production,” said Fatma Ramly, coordinator of the Farmers Association gum arabic, which has seven million members.

To harvest the amber-colored resin, farmers must endure the same climatic extremes as their trees.

“We work for hours in the scorching sun,” said Mohammed Moussa, who collects resin from the Demokaya public research forest, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the North Kordofan state capital, El Obeid.

Moussa faces a constant struggle with water scarcity in largely desert Sudan. His income from the trees “barely provides enough money to buy water to cover us until the autumn rainy season”.

– ‘Laboratory’ –

Temperatures recorded in Sudan’s Kordofan region have risen by almost two degrees Celsius in less than three decades, more than double the global average, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). .

“Water scarcity is one of the main challenges for people” living in the acacia zone, said Madani Ismail of the state-run Agricultural Research Corporation.

Farmers also face large fluctuations in the price of gum in global commodity markets.

Forty-five kilograms (100 pounds) of raw gum can fetch between 22,000 and 25,000 Sudanese pounds ($43), depending on the price of the day.

The return barely covers the cost of production for Abdelbaqi Ahmed, 52, who owns a 28-hectare (70-acre) plot of acacia trees in Botei, North Kordofan.

He grows other crops to supplement his income from the trees, the bark of which he cuts with a “sunki” – a sharp blade attached to a long wooden handle capable of reaching the top of the tree.

“It’s a laborious job,” said Ahmed, who sometimes hires other people to help him tap. “So it usually doesn’t pay off.”

Others can’t be bothered at all.

Some cut down trees for building materials or firewood. Many work in nearby gold mines, like four of Ahmed’s five sons.

For Abdallah Babiker, who also works at Demokaya, it’s the same. His three sons would rather pan for gold than tend to acacia trees.

“They want a job that pays more,” said Babiker, 72.

– Export leader –

Ever since South Sudan broke up a decade ago, taking with it its vast oil reserves, gum arabic has been one of Sudan’s main sources of foreign exchange.

Exports totaled 88,000 tons in 2021, bringing in $110 million, according to central bank figures.

This income has become all the more important as international donors cut aid following a 2021 military coup led by army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

Sudanese exports account for 70% of the world’s rubber supply, according to AFD, the French development agency.

Their importance to the global economy has earned them a special exemption from the US trade embargo imposed during the three-decade rule of now ousted strongman Omar al-Bashir.

Efforts have been made to combat deforestation by increasing farmers’ incomes.

“We have tried to replant trees in areas that have deteriorated and to prevent the gum arabic belt from retreating,” Ramly said.

Sudan’s gum arabic belt covers approximately 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 sq mi) from Gedaref in the east through Kordofan to Darfur on the border with Chad.

FAO has launched a $10 million project with the Sudanese Forest Authority to support farmers and protect trees.

Acacia stimulates “soil moisture retention”, which helps farmers’ other crops, the FAO said.

The project, which aims to reforest 125,000 hectares (310,000 acres), is part of the larger Great Green Wall project, which aims to stem the advance of the desert by planting trees from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa .

The challenge now is to persuade young people that they can earn a living in gum production.

Almost “everyone doing this job is over 60,” Ramly said.

Ismail accepted. “Young people… often see this as thankless,” he said.

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