Gum arabic, a common food ingredient which makes bubblegum chewy and postage stamps stick, may also be offering a way out of poverty for a group of returning refugees in southern Mauritania. With the earnings from their new gum tree nursery, they’re investing in wells, homes, more trees and a future free from hunger.
ROSSO—In the shade of an acacia grove, Kalidouba holds up a sticky ball of tree sap the size and shape of a marble and says it’s the greatest source of promise for community of 40 families trying to rebuild their lives after a long and brutal struggle.
Around him, men and women tend to the gum trees, gathering the sap, which seeps out of the tree trunks in orange-coloured globs. Dried and hardened, gum arabic is a remarkably versatile product found in everything from bubble gum to fireworks.
“Everyone participates in maintaining the trees,” says Kalidouba, president of the village-elected management committee, explaining that the entire community has a stake in its success.
Since 2009, WFP has been working with Kalidouba and his neighbours to raise the gum tree nursery and use the Arabic gum it produces to lift themselves out of poverty and hunger.
Gum to rebuild
They returned in 2007 at the government’s invitation and with the promise of help from international organisations like WFP, which provided food and other basic necessities to over 24,000 returning refugees. Later WFP provided food aid to people in exchange for work on projects designed to get communities back on their feet.
For Kalidouba and his neighbours, that meant giving them the means—and food—to help them raise gum trees. The people of southern Mauritania have a long tradition of harvesting gum arabic, a natural adhesive and stabilizer used to make soft drinks and chewy candies, not to mention postage stamps, cosmetics and paints.
Locally, the villagers use it to weave floor mats, wash clothes and treat wounds.
No easy job
However, growing anything on the edge of the Sahara desert can be risky. In addition to water shortages and erratic rainfall, the gum harvesters also have to be mindful of pests which eat the tree sap.
But Kalidouba says the earnings from the sales of the gum allow the community to to build houses, dig wells and plant more trees, making it all worthwhile.
“No matter how great the challenges, we are determined to keep these trees alive,” he said. “We’re trying to rebuild our lives here.”