The Ancient Trade Holding Back The Sahara Desert. According to BBC, the gum of the acacia tree has been prized for its unusual culinary and medical uses, for millennia. Currently, the trees are part of a continent-wide effort to hold back the Sahara desert. The acacias are among the taller and faster-growing trees of this habitat, with old individuals reaching high above the surrounding scrub.
This is the Sahel a Savannah that stretches across six countries in mainland West Africa. This dry strip of land between the tropical rainforest to the south and the Sahara to the north sees just three months of rain a year. Thus the climate change has seen the Sahara desert grow around 100km southward since 1950.
The Ancient Trade Holding Back The Sahara Desert
The Sahel’s acacia tree growing close to the boundary of the desert, are at the heart of reviving ancient trade with the potential to stem the advance of the Sahara.
However, to access the special aspect of these trees, you will have to tear off a strip of bark or make a small incision into the tree. Thus, the sap that exudes from the wound is a pinkish substance that dries into a round springy ball. It is gum arabic and it comes from two species of tree found in the Sahel – Acacia Senegal and acacia seyal.
The Ancient Trade
For over 2,500 years, these gums have been used for its properties to bind and emulsify substances. The Ancient Egyptians used it in food hieroglyphic paints and in their mummification ointments. But today the gum Arabic is used in a wide range of products, from soft drinks to pharmaceuticals.
Mali was one of the two historic gum arabic exporters alongside Senegal and Sudan, but the trade dwindled in the second half of the 20th century. Mali had produced over 10,000tonnes of crude gum arabica year until 1960. But the trade was destroyed due to the combination of natural and political factors, to the extent that by 1992 Mali exported only 32 tonnes of the crude gum each year.
According to the deputy technical secretary of the country’s national working group on sustainable forest management and forest certification, Fatoumata Kone, said that 1960 till today, Mali lost 82% of its forest cover.
One of the initiatives to fight this is to plant 1,250hectares of Acacia Senegal in the Malian locality of Nara, near Mauritania. The Malian agricultural firm Deguessi Vert is working with the farmers and Mali’s principal agricultural research agency, which aims to develop health infrastructure and schools in the villages. Villages involved in the Mali acacia project, a program of 6,000 hectares of acacia in different parts of the country.
In the Kayes region, the harvesting of gum arabic has become a very good source of income for locals, especially for women. From the acacia, Senegal tree one kilogram sells for about 1,000 West Africa CFA francs ($1.8/£1.4)
Fanta Sissoko, a resident of Sefetou village in the Kayes region says “ before, a lot of us depended on men for our money. But things have changed since we started selling gum in Arabic. You just have to be courageous to go into the bush to pick gum arabic and you will have money without reaching out to your husband or to another man in the family as we used to.”
Sissoko and other women in her family pick gum in the bush from October when the rainy season ends. Which is the perfect time for acacia to secrete gum until July when the rainy season begins. However, this year she says she saved CFA600,000 ( $1,100/£840). She says “. I had never obtained such a large amount of money in any other activity and I wish to have more during the next campaign.”
The gum arabic trade plays an important role in the region’s economy, not only in Mali but across the Sahel. Cisse says he saved nearly CFA 1m ($1,800/£1,400) by selling gum arabic. Every day, I went out early in the morning and only came back when the sun was about to set. When I returned to my village, many young people wanted to follow my example.”
As it brings income through trade, the acacia trees also support from carbon credit via the world bank’s Biocarbon fund. Between 2007 and 2012, the plantations sequestered 190,000 tonnes of CO2, according to the Institute of the rural economy.