Land grabbing triggered by lucrative foreign offers for arable land have combined with climate change and violence, pushing Malians to the brink.
Huge herds run through the arid central regions of Mali. They go up the Niger River. It is a transhumance that has lasted for centuries. Men, boys, and children of the Fulani ethnic group, a name that comes from a word that means "free", lead hundreds of cattle in search of water, crossing borders, armies, and militias.
Amadou is 13 years old. He has been traveling with his father and brothers for several months now. He left his mother and sisters at home. He attends school only occasionally. What he does know well is how to manage his herd - he knows what they need, he knows how to follow the stars and how to read the earth to avoid the innumerable risks of the Sahel. Today, Amadou’s herd is heading towards the inner delta of Niger.
It is the second-largest wetland on the African continent. It’s unique biodiversity is the agricultural center of Mali and is home to over half a million inhabitants. The inner delta of Niger is the nerve centre of the region - although now, it is under siege.
Mori Diallo, head of the office of Mopti and Sevare for Wetlands International, has no doubt that the region is precariously delicate.
"The health status of wetlands, concentrated along the banks of the inland delta of the Niger River, has an immediate impact on the safety of the country. The ongoing desertification, aggravated by the increase of temperatures, has led to a gradual contraction of the fertile land available, forcing farmers, mainly belonging to Bambara and Dogon ethnic groups, to an unprecedented and deadly competition with Fulani farmers."
According to a study produced by HNRO (Overview of humanitarian needs and requirements) in 2020, the Sahel is "the place on the planet where temperatures are rising 1.5 times faster than in the rest of the world" despite the region producing very low levels of greenhouse gases.
In Mali, the poverty rate is just over 47 percent while the population increases by over 3 percent per year and desertification now threatens 98 percent of the territory. Extreme weather phenomena, such as droughts and floods, are reducing the amount of water resources, arable land, and pastures, forcing communities into a deadly competition. Almost seven million people, out of a total population of 18 million, are dependent on humanitarian assistance according to UNHCR data.
In this context of environmental, political, and social fragility, terrorism continues to expand thanks to the widespread radicalisation of the population. The penetration of armed groups has slowly spread to the central regions, once extraneous to the phenomenon.
In particular, the area of Mopti and Segou witnessed a real division of territories between militias affiliated to the SIGS (Islamic State in the Great Sahara) and the GSIM (the Al Qaeda linked Support Group to Islam and Muslims).
"In some areas, proselytism takes root easily. No education, no security, lack of work, no social services, all these elements are generating an endless cycle of violence," said Samba Cisse who is from Mopti, the epicentre of the conflict, and works on de-radicalisation projects. According to Cisse, the spread of extremism is natural.
"Those groups give you a position in society, a salary, a name, and so on: a future," he explains.
To further aggravate an already complex picture, there is rampant corruption in the Malian ruling class, particularly sensitive to the offers of foreign companies and multinationals.
At the centre of corruption is land, the most coveted prize. It is on this issue that activists and associations have been fighting for years, especially in the area of the inner delta of the Niger.
"Mali is a paradise of injustice. Everyone thinks that we are at war only against extremists, but we are first of all fighting the state," Massa Koné, Secretary and Spokesman of Convergence Malienne Contre Les Accaparements des Terres (CMAT) tells TRT World. CMAT represents over 2 million Malians gathered in a network of about 300 organisations. For more than ten years, he has been denouncing land grabbing and fighting for farmers' rights.
In the last twenty years, Mali has become one of the primary markets for companies interested in the massive and illegal acquisition of arable and rich land. It is difficult to accurately estimate the amount of land grabbed, because of the total lack of transparency of the institutions involved.
In 2019, there were an estimated 370 thousand hectares of agricultural land under the concession, not to mention those relating to other sectors such as, for example, farming, gold mining, timber. According to several NGOs, millions of hectares of land have been ceded in recent years. In 2009 alone, figures show the sale of 870 thousand hectares.
"The government circumvents laws that protect its own people for business. Our field is our patrimony and our collective right, but the government doesn’t care about that, and through the Office du Niger, it does business hiding the dark side," says Kone, referring to the semi-autonomous state entity in charge, created during the colonial times, responsible for an area of over 2 million hectares in the Inner Delta of Niger.
Massa’s car slips over 200 kilometers between Bamako and Segou, the capital of the region located south of the Inner Delta of the Niger River. A delegation from the village of Sanamandougou, north of the Markala dam, is waiting for him in the CMAT office on the banks of Niger.
The community was seriously affected by the seizure of 20,000 hectares of land granted over ten years ago to the Moulin Moderne du Mali (M3 SA) which belongs to the Grand Distributeur Cerealier du Mali (GDCM) owned by Malian businessman Modibo Keita.
In the small office of the CMAT, Massa meets the village chief, Parima Coulibaly. The elder was escorted to Segou by two men of the dozos militia which protects the community of Sanamandougou from ‘jihadists’.
Sitting on a chair, the village chief says he never accepted the injustice suffered. Thanks to those lands his community has provided subsistence for generations. Today the village is in terrible condition.
"The GDCM intervened with bulldozers and gendarmes, resorting to violence and committing abuses. I myself have been in the hospital for months," says elder Coulibaly. Many inhabitants were left with nothing: the groundwater was polluted by the fertilisers used by the company.
But despite the damage, the violence also causes a civil reaction. Many of the inhabitants of Sanamandougou are now activists, fighting for the preservation of the land. They have established networks among themselves, connecting with other Malian associations, and not only, to increase their strength.
Aminata Tangara is one of them. "I was five months pregnant when the gendarmes beat me up," the activist reveals, "I lost the baby, but I never intended to stop. I will continue to fight for my rights."
Like her, even Mamadi Diarra of the nearby village of Mougotali Wairai, decided not to remain helpless and committed personally. "I went directly to negotiate with the hunters of the area to reformulate the terms of the division of land between our community and that of Niougou," he reveals, "thanks to the communication we have reached an agreement, without government intervention, and now we are able to provide for our families."
Tradition and resistance
The antidote to conflicts, often also used by organisations to heal community disputes and prosecute those responsible, is already part of the Malian cultural heritage. For hundreds of years, dialogue has maintained its strong tradition to recreate a system of trust that the conflict has partially destroyed.
In a house on the outskirts of Bamako, Massa Kone meets village leaders and representatives of a community affected by a case of land grabbing. The order of business is to update the agenda and decide how to act judicially.
"We will write a letter, signed by all the representatives, and we will take it in person to the Minister of Land Affairs. We will look him in the face. He cannot avoid us or hide," the CMAT spokesman closes the meeting, while the delegates drink tea.
The consequences of this mix; an environmental crisis, inter-community conflict, extremism, corruption, bad governance, and systematic violence, are deep and difficult to solve. The first to be affected are the most vulnerable groups of society and in particular women, often forced to flee from rural areas to find refuge in cities.
In fact, every day hundreds of young girls arrive in the capital Bamako to work as domestic workers and save money for their studies or for their dowry. Without any social protection net, the risk of ending up in criminal trafficking networks is high.
Outside a building in Niamakoro, Bamako district, a group of women gather to clean sheets, while in the inner courtyard others are taking care of lunch. It is the headquarters of ADDAD, an association that deals with the phenomenon of women’s migration, creating safe shelters for them, and helping them in cases of labour exploitation.
"I have been a domestic helper and I have also been mistreated too,” said Aichata Kone, a young 23-year-old activist. Today, she is the communication manager of ADDAD.
"The association was created to ensure that the voices of these women can be heard by public opinion. Today in the big cities domestic helpers are often victims of rape and violence, as well as being subjected to real modern slavery."
In addition to arranging a reception centre and organising awareness-raising campaigns in rural areas, the association has set up a real network with other Malian women’s rights organisations to manage cases that are far from their jurisdiction.
"I do it because I believe in it. I identify myself with these girls and so I try to do everything to build networks of protection, together with my colleagues," said Aichata. She concludes, “Land grabbing is one of the main causes of the migration for us young girls. We are the daughters of the elders who have been deprived of their lands".
But activism in Mali is risky. Touching sensitive issues, such as land rights and, in particular, the inner delta of Niger exposes activists to numerous dangers. In fact, since Massa Kone began the fight against abuse and corruption, he has lost at least a dozen colleagues, killed for their work. He himself escaped an ambush of armed men in July 2020, when his family was threatened with death.
"It is essential to take responsibility, aware of everything that comes with it," Massa explains, adding “if you create networks, you can assert your opinions and rights. You are not alone".
While Mali continues to experience political instability, even due to the numerous coups d'etat, the solution for Massa seems simple. "If the Government stopped grabbing land from its population, we would overcome the manipulations of armed groups. But as long as the bellies remain empty, peace will not return to Mali."