(AFP) – Jul 9, 2008
KHARTOUM (AFP) — In Sudan, gum arabic is "manna" from heaven and a key ingredient in iconic brands of globalisation despite US sanctions on this African country listed as a state sponsor of terror in Washington.
Hands covered in balls of see-through resin, Issam Siddig is categorical: gum arabic is the food which both the Bible and the Koran say fell from heaven to save the Israelites from starvation during their sojourn in the Sinai desert.
"Manna, it's the bread of heaven. Allah expelled Adam and Eve from paradise to Darfur, giving them manna to survive," said the boss of Mannafibre Company. For him the acacia sap is a "pure miracle".
In Saharan Africa, the gum grows west to east, from Senegal to Somalia. Sudan is the world powerhouse of "manna", providing more than half the total and the best variety, known as Hashab.
Sudan, Chad and Nigeria -- all three deeply troubled countries that produce 95 percent of the 60,000 tonnes of gum exported each year in the world -- would like to set up a cartel like oil's OPEC.
In Iraq where it is used for a gum-based candy known as Mann al-Sama, a US satirical website says the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein was launched for control of gum arabic, rather than oil.
In Sudan, "the worst enemies are locust and man, locust fights against the gum and men are fighting each other," says Abdelazim Mirghani, head of the Sudanese forestry commission.
One particularly virulent locust attack decimated crops in 1993.
In antiquity, the gum was extracted by making an incision in the trunk of acacia trees. It was coveted by the Egyptians who used it as glue for their mummies. "No gum, no bandages," says Sudan-based archaeologist Vincent Rondot.
The British and French fought during colonial times for access to the tasteless and odourless gum used in textiles, paint, ink, confectionery and to stick the first postage stamps.
Today, gum is used in hair gel, chewing gum, and soft drinks such as Coca Cola, first sold by an Atlanta drug store in 1886.
As a natural carbohydrate, gum arabic is the special emulsifier bringing together water, which accounts for 90 percent, and the still secret "7 X" trademark formula of the drink sold in 200 countries.
"In a bottle of Cola, there is only one percent of manna but without gum, no 'junk' soda," says Siddig, dismissive of what he considers too much sugar.
Siddig says he supplies, through an agent in London, Pepsi Cola -- the other great US brand based on the cola nut.
Sudan, where President Omar al-Beshir seized power in an Islamist-backed coup that toppled the democratically-elected government in 1989, once sheltered today's public enemy number one for the West, Osama bin Laden.
It is a country entrenched in the most infamous war in Africa -- Darfur. Washington put Sudan on the list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1993 and has imposed US sanctions since 1997.
Yet the US embassy in Khartoum confirmed that the United States imports gum arabic from Sudan.
"(It's) not really an embargo, not a real one. Lobbies in America were very active. There is a quota... I have myself a licence, selling them 1,200 tons (a year)," says Siddig.
"(It's) more expensive through agents, in the UK, Italy, France. The French in particular are taking advantage of these sanctions," he adds, describing France's CNI as a main provider to Coca Cola.
A global leader with a 35-percent share of the market, French company Iranex-CNI imports gum arabic from Sudan and re-exports it everywhere, chiefly to the United States after processing the gum in France.
"We have very big clients in every sector, but there is no question of naming names," says boss Stephane Dondain.
Scores of products -- global household names -- including sweets such as marshmallows and M&Ms are made with gum arabic despite vain attempts to find more effective or cheaper chemical substitutes.
Dondain also believes the gum "has a big future in diet food".
US companies, such as major supplier TIC Gums, however, say they no longer import Sudanese gum, turning elsewhere for supplies. In 2002, Coca Cola opened a gum arabic processing plant in Nigeria it says is sufficient for its needs.
As a threat, Sudan's ambassador to the United States, John Ukec Lueth Ukec brandished a Coca Cola bottle before reporters a year ago.
"I want you to know that gum arabic which runs all the soft drinks all over the world, including the United States, mainly 80 percent is imported from my country," he was quoted as saying by the US media.
"I can stop that gum arabic and all of us will have lost this," he was reported as threatening.
But no market player has taken the threat seriously and Mirghani lashed out at what he considered hypocritical US policy that still allow traders to acquire licences to export gum arabic.
"It's business as usual... The embargo is stupid, it's targeting the livelihood of poor people," says Mirghani.
"Gum arabic is smuggled to Chad or Eritrea. But smuggling is not my problem. What I do care about is the forest and the livelihood of people," he adds.
"The revenue generated by gum arabic is crucial for the livelihoods of the poorest, mostly small-scale farmers. Acacia trees also reduce soil and wind erosion," said Mirghani.
The national Gum Arabic Company (GAC) monopolises raw gum, but the industry of processed gum has been liberalised.
"Producers are not stupid, they understand competition, so revenue sharing has changed dramatically," says Hisham Yagub, whose ultra-modern factory in Soba, an industrial zone of Khartoum, is in partnership with Iranex-CNI.
Constantly changing, one ton of gum arabic this year costs between 1,700 and 2,500 dollars depending on its quality, say the professionals.
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