Pastoralists dump cows for gum tree as demand soars

The soaring demand for a naturally occurring component from the barks of Acacia tree, which is used across pharmaceuticals, drugs and photography industries, has given pastoralists from the Karamoja region of Uganda a new lifeline by collecting and selling it, at a time when climate change is wiping out almost  all their flocks.

According to Dr. Poncianah Akumu program coordinator for Jie Community Health Workers Association (JICAHWA), the demand for Gum Arabic which is a naturally occurring component from the barks of the Acacia trees in the arid and semi arid regions has risen due to the immense industrial uses of the product.

“The product is a vital component in the production of soft drinks and confectionaries. It is the traditional binder used in watercolor paint, in photography for gum printing. Pharmaceutical drugs and cosmetics also use the gum as a binder, emulsifying agent and a suspending or viscosity increasing agent,” explained Dr Akumu.

Karamoja pastoralists have for long relied on cattle keeping as their main social and economic symbol of might. However, the current shocks from climate change are forcing the nomadic community to embrace other means of livelihood. Loyo Aquilano is among the farmer-pastoralists who have already tasted the fruits of diversity. “We have for long relied on animals and after several losses due to lengthy droughts our members have embraced positively other agro ventures which includes crop farming and tapping proceeds from the Acacia tree which produces gum Arabic,” noted Loyo.

Gum Arabic from Acacia is prevalent in the semi arid areas of East Africa in which Karamoja region is among one of them. The species is collected from naturally occurring extrusions on the bark. The people from Karamoja area traditionally harvest the gum Arabic using a knife or bare hands to detach it from the tree.

The hardened extrusions are collected in the middle of the rainy season with Dr. …noting that harvesting usually begins in July. On average, the pastoralists harvest about 3 to 7 kilograms of gum Arabic from each tree. Initially most people were not caring for the shrubs but after the discovery of the huge monetary value of the trees, steady care is currently being witnessed although largely most of the trees and shrubs producing the product are yet to be domesticated.

The biggest market for the farmers is Century Bottling Company (Coca Cola) which purchase the gum tree for use in its soft drink production. According to Loyo, the company buys a kilo of gum tree at about UGX4000. On a good month Loyo revealed that he collects over 1000 kilograms of the product whose market is readily available as the team from Coca cola has an agent in the area.

Dr. Akumu further explained that gum arabic's mixture of polysaccharides and glycoprotein gives it the properties of a glue and binder which is edible by humans. She explained that despite the fact that other substances have replaced it in situations where their toxicity is not an issue, it still remains an important ingredient in soft drink syrups, "hard" gummy candies such as gumdrops, marshmallows, M&M's chocolate candies, and edible glitter, a very popular modern cake-decorating staple.

Total world gum arabic exports are currently estimated at 60,000 tonnes, having recovered from 1987–1989 and 2003–2005 crises caused by the destruction of trees by the desert locust. Sudan, Chad, and Nigeria, which in 2007 together produced 95percent of world exports, have been in discussions to create a producers' cartel.