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Length : 20mn
Look! It’s August. We’re in the middle of the rainy season and we’re walking on the riverbed”.
Ousmane, agro-pastoralist from Sofara
We’re on the shore of the Bani River, which skirts along the south side of the small town of Sofara, near Mopti. Young herders are watching their flocks. Nearby, women are doing their washing up in small rivulets of water. Yesterday it was the Tabaski festival. Two thirds of people here still live off subsistence farming.
« This year, it’s not raining. The farmers are still waiting to do their planting. It’s as if we were at the start of the farming cycle, in mid-June”, Ousmane continues.
He farms about five hectares and has a few animals, “With this, I could provide for my whole family before. My five children, my wife, my mother and even part of the extended family. It was enough. We hardly ever went short, even during the off-season. We didn’t really talk about food insecurity here.” The periods of extreme heat are growing longer and becoming unbearable. The timing of the seasons is changing – and when it rains, they are heavy rains that erode everything. “Today we have lost our reference points. The weather has become completely unpredictable.”
Ousmane has the kind of depth of wisdom that makes a profound impression. Forged by a lifetime that has so far encompassed the hopes for African independence of the ‘60s, then the winds of multi-party politics that swept across Africa, to the fall of the USSR at the beginning of the ‘90s. After studies that had taken him to secondary school and university in Bamako, he worked in insurance and risk management. Prophetic.
Ousmane was among the first to join the ranks of ADEMA, a brand-new party founded to replace the single-party regime of Moussa Traore. He was 33. The new political organisation, which grouped together the main opposition movements, was rapidly beset by political scheming and infighting, but survived the chaos of the 1997 elections. Ousmane made a decision against the advice of his brothers and sisters to return to the land. In Sofara. He could not abandon his mother and the fields after the death of his father, two years after the elections. He would continue his fight from there, with the movements for the defence and protection of peasant farmers, as secretary-general of the National Coordinating Committee of Farmers’ Organisations (CNOP). He would go on to represent them in negotiations with the relevant ministry, and in international conferences - in India, France, and in neighbouring countries.
A traditional justice session is ending
The "Sahel" used to be a bioclimatic term designating the transition zone between the Sahara and the Sudanese zone. But beginning during the drought at the start of the 1970s, the term "Sahelian countries" in the geopolitical sense came into use, referring to a group of African countries whose common denominators are extreme weather conditions, water scarcity and food insecurity.
Northern Mali has been experiencing rebel movements and demands for independence for decades. In the new Peace Agreement signed in 2015, the Peuhl community still feels excluded from the negotiations.
The region of Mopti marks the dividing line between the “yellow” Mali of the North and the “green” Mali of the South, facing each other in the (green, yellow and red-striped) national flag. The yellow originally symbolised the gold embedded in the country’s sub-soil. Here it is also the demarcation line between the agricultural plains and the desert plateaux. Between the nomadic groups who herd cattle and the settled one who cultivate the land. A gate to the Sahel, running like a fault line between the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. History has its sanctuaries, and bears its share of responsibility for the heat that is drying up the earth.
In the collective memory, the droughts of 1973 and 1984 marked a turning point. Roughly a third of the national livestock perished, and 40% of its human population was hard hit. Ousmane’s mother, Djehamé, recalls: “At that point, things changed. It became hotter and hotter, and we saw less and less rain. Before, there was land for everyone here. There was no conflict. Everyone lived together. The livestock had their transhumance route. We liked to have a celebration when the herds came down. Today nothing makes sense to me any more. People are fighting. There are too many people arguing over land. It’s as if God was punishing us”.
Records show a 3°C increase in temperature and a decrease in rainfall of more than 23% over the past 50 years. What was already scarce became inadequate. Borne on dry, burning winds, the desert advances, invades villages, pushes against the walls and gets into the houses. The herders of the plateaux end up by giving in and coming down to the plains with even thinner livestock, seeking food, fodder, shade and water – but to find lands that are no longer as fertile and as vast. The plains also suffer the unpredictable moods of the weather and this leads the farmers to concentrate as closely as possible to water sources which can provide irrigation.
Sofara’s population has doubled in less than 10 years. It’s no longer possible to live off only one occupation. Displaying pragmatism and common sense, the people have adapted by diversifying their occupations. They grow crops, but they also raise livestock and fish. “There’s real competition for natural resources. Even speculation”, as Mr Dolo, a water and forestry engineer and coordinator of the sustainable development programme for the Niger Plain, sums it up. They cut down what’s left of the forest to make more space for agriculture, and to use wood as fuel. There is no longer any shade left, leaving little chance for life. The fauna and flora have resigned themselves to this. The soil gives way under the pressure of erosion and doesn’t regenerate any longer, being dried up through over-use. The transhumance routes have been turned into crop fields. The livestock trample and graze on everything that grows. Every square meter has to be made profitable. And tensions between communities are increasing.
We join Housseyni and Sory on the plot belonging to Nafa, a farmer who was born here. There’s a nice orchard and thickets of eucalyptus. Housseyni, a Dogon herder, came from Bankass Cercle to settle in Sofara five years ago. His 13-year-old son was herding the flock last week. The animals escaped and got in through a hole in the hedge of the plot. Nafa, exasperated, brutally confined the boy for several hours, demanding justice and a promise of compensation. People close to him and elders got together to make him see reason. This morning it’s the conciliation meeting. Sory chairs it - a privilege reserved for his ethnic group, the Dogoramé, respected for their mediation and psychology skills. Ousmane will be the second voice of reason. In the end, Housseyni is to give Nafa two animals immediately, with a promise not to harbour any resentment.
“In Mopti today, everyone is a little bit wrong and nobody is really right”, Ousmane smiles sadly. Risk manager and voice of reason…
The majority of political and media narratives attribute insecurity and acts of violence to terrorist groups structured around "jihadist" movements.
The populations themselves employ the term frequently. The confusion surrounding these groups –who they are and their objectives – leads to the population, media and government using the same term to describe them.
Distinctions must nevertheless be made.
The drought, the shortage of rainfall, the advancing desert… Yes, but that’s not the end of the story. The plain is unable to absorb all of the hidden consequences of the inadequacies of national policies and the Sahel geopolitics. Mopti becomes the epicentre of tensions, far from the spotlights and TV cameras turned on the North since 2012. The fight against the Islamic State, Tuareg groups’ demands for independence, the opportunism of paramilitary groups which see their benefit in the chaos of regional confusion - the shock wave grips Mopti, the “Venice of the desert”. The place that used to be featured in tourist guides, along with Timbuktu, and home to Djenné’s majestic Sudanese-inspired mosque, as well the cliffs of the Dogon Plateau and their cave dwelling villages, has lost all its tourists, and also a whole local economy based on agro-tourism projects.
The region has had to absorb a sudden influx of more than 150,000 displaced people fleeing the fighting and threats, at a time when the population is already growing by 3.5% each year. The population of Mali will have doubled by 2050.
“The arrival of displaced people in a situation already made difficult by the effects of climate change is viewed as being the final fatal blow”, Ousmane explains calmly, without bitterness. “But that’s not what angers the Malians here the most.” Ousmane straightens up and nods to me, looking from the opposite side of the Bani shore. “Did you see as you arrived? No, perhaps not. You have to be here to notice. Just on the opposite shore there are Jihadists. Very close by. And in town their militias circulate night and day. They blend in with the population. It could be anyone. Furthermore, the flag flying above the door of Sofara town hall is not the Malian flag. It’s the Jihadist flag. In other districts, they have closed the schools. The teachers no longer go to work. Or the doctors and nurses. Because they’re afraid. The Jihadists gave them a warning. And they have made examples of people. They’re the ones who make the law here.”
Ousmane explains, as a good risk manager and as a representative of a suffering rural world. “The Malian state has abandoned us. That’s how people here feel.” For years now the national administration has been engaged in corruption at all levels, which has become a norm. Encouraged by meagre wages and the complicit permissiveness of the state, the police, justice, education and health systems are all corrupt. “Even if you were 100% right, you could have a judge rule against you in a dispute and order you to compensate the other party. Here, justice had become the justice of the powerful.”
It had become?
Yes, because there is now a widespread consensus that the Jihadists have brought back justice. “They first let traditional justice try to solve the problem, as you have seen. And if no solution is found, they intervene. Then you’d better do as you’re told. Otherwise… you’ve got big problems. But the people here are happy to see justice being served again.” Even though everyone agrees that in other areas, they go too far and are too severe. Particularly when it comes to the status of women. “That’s not part of our culture”, Ousmane notes.
The Western media oversimplify things. It’s not just the radical Jihadists of Islamic State or AQIM that are fighting Bamako today. It’s also a whole sector of the population that is rising up against a completely corrupt, incompetent, complicit state.” AQIM wanted to make Mopti the Islamic State capital, in a geographic but also a philosophical sense. While international intervention has driven them out, it also helped to create a fertile recruitment zone within local populations. “What we call Jihadists are young people – often from surrounding villages – who join self-defence militias to protect their families and their communities. And what the Western media call Jihadists, the ISIS and AQIM fighters – those who come from the war in Libya- we call the Rebels.”
The Malian authorities are not clear about this, and don’t necessarily want to be. The latest attacks on symbols of the state in the region and the national security forces are acts of revenge by local people.
Climate change has led to a marked degradation of the regions of Mopti and Timbuktu which will not be able to recover unless serious measures of adjustment are taken"
UNDP, Adaptation to Climate Change in the Most Vulnerable Municipalities of the Regions of Mopti and Timbuktu
For West Africa, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) forecasts an average increase in temperature of 3.3°C by the year 2100, which could increase to 4.7°C in the northern half of Mali. The decrease in water flow, combined with erosion and sand encroachment, hampers the flow of water into the greater part of the Niger Delta, thus threatening fishing, agriculture and pastoral activities.
The Delta - and in particular the Niger River - is marked by not just a decrease in water flow (a fall of 25% in the course of a century), but also by a continuous reduction in the area flooded every year, which has shrunk by 60% in 50 years.
Many communities have been forced to abandon their traditional means of subsistence, while the nomadic groups are becoming settled in order to cultivate the land or benefit from development programmes. Agriculture and fishing are consequently being replaced by pasture on land that is already poor and can be used only during the short rainy season. The decrease in crop yields has already led local people to adopt unsustainable strategies to adapt to circumstances, including reducing the quantity and quality of meals. It is estimated that during the past 10 years 200,000 people have migrated away from the region.
" Programme d’Appui à l’adaptation aux changements climatiques dans les communes les plus vulnérables des régions de Mopti et Tombouctou"
More than the inevitable pressure on resources, it is the inability to guarantee fair arbitration of access to these resources that really appears to be at the heart of the situation of conflict in the Mopti zone."
Local Analysis of Dynamics and Resilience in the Koro-Bankass Zone
" Analyse locale des dynamique de conflit et de résilience dans la zone de Koro-Bankass"
What is not in doubt is that socio-demographic and climatic change has heightened the pressure and the competition for these resources.
However, even more than the scarcity of such resources, it is the perceived lack of even-handedness in the arbitration and governance of access to them and the feelings of injustice that stem from this which appear to fuel the situation of conflict the most. This feeling of injustice and the perceived absence of any means of recourse is generally stronger among the herder communities, which believe that the system favours the settled communities, to their disadvantage. The underlying core element thus appears to be the question of who is the traditional land chief or authority over other resources (water, forestry, etc.). The driving force behind the conflicts is believed to be less about the possibility for the various parties to conduct their respective affairs in peace and more to do with their ability to make the rules of the game and the judicial decisions work in their favour.
In the opinion of most observers, the increase in tensions, the scarcity of economic opportunities and the proliferation of arms in the Mopti area are all reasons likely to encourage young people to opt for models of success based on violence and trafficking.
Copyrights réservés - Samuel Turpin
Visit Sofara with Ousmane
Guidjovel is a dogon village. Kassim left his village two years ago to work in mining gold. Some friends have joined the "Djihadists"
Many young people leave. There’s nothing to do here.”
Arkietou Diallo, 22, Ousmane’s second daughter.
Lassina, Boicar and Kassim are from the neighbouring village, Guidjovel. A Dogon village. All of them are between 20 and 25 years old. And they are all unemotional in their assessment. “What our parents did, we can’t do any longer. Fishing, herding or farming are not enough to meet our needs. The needs of the family. So, we have to deal with it and find small ways and means.” By leaving for Bamako or neighbouring Burkina Faso to find jobs that pay a pittance; by small-scale panning for gold and trying their luck in the gold mines in conditions of near slavery; or being tempted by “the Jihadist experience”. They receive a weapon and training. They feel useful by protecting their families, convinced that they are helping to restore order. But they don’t consider themselves specifically a part of the AQIM forces. “It’s not our fight. Not our philosophy. But we are still guided by Islam.” Without creating direct sympathisers, AQIM has succeeded in maintaining the inertia of chaos at local level, fuelling strong resentment against Bamako and destabilising the region.
“When I come back to see my family in Sofara, I don’t find my old friends here anymore. I’ve learnt that they’ve all left, one by one“, says Arkietou. She is the second daughter of Ousmane, who tells me that when his father died – before Arkietou had even turned 5 – she had already decided to study medicine, “so that people don’t die any more and nobody has to grieve”. She is studying in Bamako to become a midwife. She can’t imagine leaving and living her life abroad. She wants to practise in Mali. In the countryside. But not in Sofara, “because there’s nothing to do here any more”. She doesn’t blame the young people who go seeking adventure. “If you haven’t finished school and you can’t continue with your studies or your parents can’t help you to study, you have no option but to look for other ways. Here, you can’t earn a living any more. One of my friends that I still speak to on Facebook is in Congo. We would never have thought of going so far away.” Arkietou was not around at the time of the droughts of 1973 or 1983. But she has seen the changes that have occurred since she was a child. Unreliable harvests, cattle too weak to pull the plough, sick poultry, dwindling numbers of fish, deforestation. “Everyone knows, even here, that cutting down the forest exacerbates climate change and that we are partly responsible. Young people talk amongst themselves, even in the bush. But people do this also because they have no other choice. And they tell themselves, if I don’t do it, others will… so…”
It’s a vicious circle. The effects of climate change add to the stresses and the competition for natural resources, which aggravate the already precarious economic and security situation. This exacerbates inter-communal tensions and breathes fresh life into latent conflicts buried in history, benefiting extremists and fuelling the conflict in the North, and which then lead to migration and the creation of new tensions.
Bâ Seydou, fisherman, shows in his left hand the net he used 25 years ago. In the right is the net he uses today. “It’s like a mosquito net”
Bâ Seydou has been fishing in Sofara for 35 years, in the Bani and the Yamé, which flow into the Niger River. As his father and his grandfather did before him. A privilege and a source of pride, reserved for the Bozo ethnic group. His pride disappeared along with the fish. Seydou explains: “There are no fish any more. It really started to change 10 years ago. There was no water any more. The rivers ran dry for a large part of the year. Certain types of fish have completely disappeared. And above all, the fish have decreased in size. They’re smaller. Because we catch them too young. They haven’t reached adult size. With the droughts, everyone started to fish here. Farmers, herders, people who come from elsewhere too. Before, you didn’t have to worry about going hungry. You got out your canoe, your nets, and you had fish. You traded part of your catch for meat or grain. You kept the rest. Here, see!” Seydou returns with his hands held out. He opens them. In his left hand is the net he used 25 years ago. His hand can almost go through the mesh of the net. In the right is the net he uses today. “It’s like a mosquito net”, he whispers, looking me in the eye. “The fish are so small that we use ever finer mesh nets. Before, we threw back the small fish and left them to grow. Today, we take them all.”
In Mopti, the representatives of the union for the protection of fishermen are reaching the same unfortunate conclusion. The region used to supply the whole of the area and neighbouring Burkina Faso. Fishing was bound up with the identity of the Bozo people. “It’s our own fault. We don’t know how to protect nature. We haven’t taken care of it. It’s not the land that is betraying us. We’re the ones who are betraying the land. We dump all our rubbish in the rivers. Dishwater, motor oil, organic waste… and above all plastic bags. You find them even inside fish. They swallow our plastic waste and suffocate. But it’s also the responsibility of the state, which just allows everything to happen, which doesn’t manage anything and which doesn’t encourage a change in behaviour.”
The NGOs Action Contre la Faim (ACF), CCFD Terres Solidaires and Oxfam France recently denounced, in a report published during the G20 summit in Hamburg in April 2017, the increase in Africa of agricultural growth clusters, or agropoles, through the investment of international agribusiness groups benefiting from tax incentives - in particular from the African Development Bank. These practices lead to "two-third agriculture sectors that favor national and international investors to the detriment of family farms".
Pollution. Including fertilisers. Ousmane bends down and picks up a handful of earth. “Look at this soil. It’s turned completely white. The earth has become depleted because the farmer makes intensive use of fertilisers. You’ll have seen all the products for sale in the village. Roundup, for example. They told us a few years ago that this was the answer to all our problems. I remember it. The minister at the time, just back from a trip abroad, told us he’d found the solution to food insecurity.”
Since the ‘90s, successive governments have advocated the same agricultural policy. “Valuable agriculture”, Ousmane sniggers. In other words, agribusiness, based on making profits. “People no longer grow just what they need. They want to produce more. It’s the pursuit of profit.”
The routine is well-known by now. Lobbying by the big petrochemical companies. Then the baton is picked up by powerful institutions such as the World Bank, which still have a great deal of influence over the policies of struggling countries that depend on their loans; international treaties that establish obligations and make them legal; states whose institutions are too weak to resist; local bodies stacked by authorities such as the regional Chambers of Agriculture, which set out to win over the farmers. At the end of the chain, blighted earth that has been bargained away.
Operating covertly, wealthy Malians purchase thousands of hectares of land as using frontmen, playing on the confusion over title deeds. They most often act on behalf of big companies based in Brazil, Canada, South Africa, or until recently, Libya. This land is used to grow [seeds] for export: rice, sugar, soya and jatropha, a plant used to make biofuel. “For example, a little further south, between Bamako and Mopti, in 2009-2010 there was a 100,000-hectare rice-farming project. The project, managed by a Libyan company, was a colossal one set up by Chinese companies. This led to the hundreds of farmers being dispossessed.” Then there was the decision 15 years ago to give up on growing subsistence crops and to stake everything on growing cotton for export, the prices of which fell dramatically in 2004 and led a crisis for the sector in Mali.
Around 800,000 hectares are reported to have been appropriated during the past 15 years or so. 15% of the land. “There is however an agricultural framework law that was promulgated in 2006. A brave law for reform of the model”, says Ousmane excitedly. A law that in fact promotes the family farming model, based on local forms of cooperation. A reasonable form of agriculture which promotes the preservation of biodiversity, food sovereignty and a decrease in the rural exodus. However, the government is still authorising the import of GMO products into Mali and encouraging the extensive use of fertilisers.
“Why?” Ousmane is no longer smiling.
Texts and photographs : Samuel Turpin
Editing : Catherine McKenzie
Initiatives to strenghten adaptation and resilience of malians
Prise en compte des changements climatiques dans le processus d’élaboration des plans de développement économique, social et culturel (PDESC) grâce au climate proofing for development
Projet pilote dans les communes de Banamba, Koussané, Macina, Sanankorodjitoumou, N’Gassola et Dandoli