MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
The African nation of Sudan has seen civil war, famine, but it does have one thing going for it - a product that the whole world wants. Gum arabic is used in newspaper ink, drugs, paints, even soft drinks.
And as NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports, it's a marketer's dream.
GWEN THOMPKINS: This stuff sells itself. Gum arabic, the sap that comes from the branches of the Acacia Senegal tree is a miracle commodity for Sudan, and by extension, for the rest of the world. The ancient Egyptians knew that gum arabic from neighboring Sudan was a key ingredient in mummification. Arab merchants on wooden ships sold it around the world, hence the name. And in modern times, the importance of gum arabic has only increased.
Before the Clinton administration introduced economic sanctions against Sudan in 1997, a dozen major U.S. industries lobbied for gum arabic to be exempted. And gum arabic has been exempt from sanctions ever since. It's like a modern-day 11th commandment: thou shalt not sanction sanctions against gum arabic, so let it be written, so let it be done.
Dr. ISAM SIDDIG (CEO, Dar Savanna Ltd): (Foreign language spoken)
THOMPKINS: That's Isam Siddig, quoting from the second book of the Koran called Al-Baqara. As he sees it, gum arabic figures into Al-Baqara's rendering of the story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, which is also represented in the Torah and the Bible. Siddig is a Khartoum-based entrepreneur and a devout Muslim with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. He's also a former economic adviser to the Sudanese government, and he is now the brain behind Dar Savanna Ltd., a private local processor and exporter of gum arabic.
Siddig can think of more ways to use the gum than just about anybody - beauty treatments, shaving, and even a tea that can conquer both diarrhea and constipation. Talk about a miracle. Siddig prefers to call it manna from heaven though he pronounces it menna.
Mr. SIDDIG: Since mankind came to this world - since Adam - they used to eat gum arabic and it is called manna. And in the Koran said this is the best food on Earth.
THOMPKINS: It is certainly economic manna. Sudan reportedly ships tens of thousands of tons of raw gum arabic for processing in Europe every year. And from Europe, it is disseminated worldwide. Gum arabic is in such demand because it is an emulsifier of the highest quality, which means that it can keep the ingredients to just about anything intact indefinitely. And just a little dab will do you. A jot of gum arabic makes newspaper ink more cohesive and permanent. It keeps pharmaceuticals from separating into their different ingredients. It helps watercolors retain their color. And lets not forget big pop - soda pop that is.
Mr. HASSAN OSMAN ABDEL NOUR (General Manager, Gum Arabic Company): Gum arabic acts as a special agent, an encapsulating agent. The color and the sugar would remain suspended uniformly like this forever. And this is how Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola - the color does not separate, and the sugar, which is 10 percent, does not precipitate through the (unintelligible).
THOMPKINS: That's Hassan Osman Abdel Nour. He's the general manager of Sudan's largest exporter of gum arabic called, simply enough, The Gum Arabic Company. The company is partially owned by the Sudanese government and used to have the monopoly. He calls the Acacia Senegal tree an endowment from God.
Mr. ABDEL NOUR (General Manager, The Gum Arabic Company): It exists on both sides of the equator, but this heat and the low ambient relative humidity gives the characteristics to our gum arabic. It's an endowment from God. We did nothing about it.
THOMPKINS: But harvesting gum arabic is not so easy. The Acacia Senegal is covered in thorns. Here in the region called Khordofan, southwest of Khartoum are some of the highest producing farms in the country. The farm workers and the branches scratch each other. When the amber-colored gum starts bubbling up, the workers handpick chunks of it from the tree and take them into market.
At a small gum arabic warehouse in a nearby town, there are 200-pound sacks, one of top of the other like sea lions in flagrante. When they cut open a bag, it looks like rock candy inside.
(Soundbite of men talking)
THOMPKINS: Business is down. Part of the problem is climate change. The once thick belt of Acacia Senegal trees that stretched from one end of Sudan to the other is shrinking. Also, the conflict in Darfur said to have stymied a key area of gum arabic production.
Sudan's output has dropped to nearly half of what the nation produced in its heyday. Farmer Adil Basheer(ph) remembers better harvests.
Mr. ADIL BASHEER (Gum Arabic Farmer): (Through translator) In the '90s, we're talking about hectares, so one hectare it was equivalent to seven and eight bags. But nowadays, a hectare cannot bring a half bag or two and a half bag It is a bit (unintelligible).
THOMPKINS: What's more, the farmers here say they're not getting good domestic prices for their gum arabic, and the humanitarian crisis in Darfur - a conflict that the Bush administration calls government-sponsored genocide - has also had a negative impact on the gum arabic trade worldwide. More than 200,000 people have died in Darfur and more than two million have had to leave their homes.
The situation has apparently sullied Sudan's reputation so much around the world that nobody wants to say they buy a Sudanese commodity. Coca-Cola, for instance, won't say where it gets its get its gum arabic, but company representatives do say that Coke does not buy directly from Sudan.
Dr. MANSOUR KHALID (Chairman of the Board of Directors, The Gum Arabic Company): They buy processed gum and the processed gum comes from Europe. And, you know, Europe buys it from the Sudan. The whole thing is silly.
THOMPKINS: Mansour Khalid is board president of The Gum Arabic Company. He's trying to add some snap, crackle and pop to the company's image at home and abroad. Khalid has a plan.
Dr. KHALID: The thinking now is for the government to pull out the company. And if that happens, we're going to explore new markets like the Chinese market, Indian market. All those countries use gum.
THOMPKINS: But Isam Siddig, who runs the privately owned Dar Savannah Ltd., says the only way forward is to widen gum arabic appeal internationally. He wants to change gum arabic's identity altogether, from an additive to a food. History is on his side. In the olden days, people in this region lived on gum arabic during times of famine. That's because gum arabic is high fiber, no fat and keeps the consumer regular. Okay now, listen for the sales pitch.
Dr. SIDDIG: America is aware of good health and good food - American people. And they wanted fiber. We have here fiber. They have their wheat in America. So Sudan and America could be a good partnership for the benefit of the two nations.
THOMPKINS: That pitch goes right over the plate, but this stuff sells itself.
Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Khartoum.