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FORECAST:

DRY AND BRUTAL


A warming climate, an exploding population,
dwindling resources: Mali gives the world a harsh
glimpse of the future

B Y

A L E X

S H O U M A T O F F

P H O T O G R A P H S

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B Y

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B E N A L I

Particles from dust


storms like this one, on
a dirt road between
Douentza and
Timbuktu, can travel
thousands of miles.

FIVE OF THE TEN MARCH DAYS I was in Mali, I never

A woman and her baby walk across a Sahel landscape, which has been

saw the sun. It was blotted out by an epic dust cloud that spread hundreds of miles in every direction, borne by the harmattan, the southwesterly gale that blows down from the Sahara during the dry season.
Dust storms have always been a part of life here. They can be so thick
you cant even see your hand.
Historically, the harmattan blows from December through February. But since 1968, Mali and the rest of the Sahel (shore in Arabic, the semi-arid band below the Sahara that stretches from Senegal
to Eritrea) have experienced a devastating drought. Precipitation has
dropped 30 percentthe most dramatic decline ever recordedand
the rainy season has been truncated to two months, July and August.
At the same time, the population of the Sahel has exploded, compounding the demand for firewood, the main source of cooking
fuel. A million acres of trees a year are being cleared and burned in
Mali alone, a landlocked country nearly twice the size of Texas whose
top two-thirdsfrom Timbuktu northare in the Sahara, and
whose bottom third is in the Sahel.
The drought, amplified by the deforestation, has brought catastrophic desertification to the Sahel. Dust storms pick up two billion to three billion tons of Sahara dust a year. The finest red particles
are whipped up into the upper atmosphere, to 12,000 feet and higher,
and are transported across oceans by the trade winds. Sahara dust
lands on cars in Florida and South Texas. In February 2005 the
sun was blotted out in Austria. In May a blood rain fell in England. NASA satellite photographs have shown cloudsone larger
than Spainoff the coast of Morocco. Sahara dust travels to Toronto
and Greenland. It is snuffing coral reefs and sea urchins in the

altered by desertification. The effects of climate change, a prolonged

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drought, and deforestation have caused soil erosion and degraded the land.

Caribbean. So the Sahels desertification is not just a matter of local concern.


During the first five years of the drought, 250,000 people and 3.5
million head of cattle in the Sahel died. In the mid-1980s, rural Mali
again became uninhabitable, and many of the villages, where threequarters of the population live, were abandoned. Most of the environmental refugees poured into Bamako, the capital, whose population
has grown from 800,000 to two million in the past 20 years.
In 2003, good rains fell, and 2004 was also a relatively wet year. But
the rains triggered the emergence of billions of pink locusts, which
skeletonized whatever vegetation they landed on. In Niger, to the east,
where the rural population was already on the edge after three decades
of drought, the scourge last summer helped produce a famine of
Ethiopian direness. In 2005, the rains were also good, but there were
still those epic dust storms before they came. The drought may have
subsided for now, but most scientists agree that the processes that are
desertifying the Sahel are continuing.

BAMAKO, WHERE MY QUEST to understand these processes


began, sprawls unprepossessingly on both sides of the Niger River.
Few houses are taller than one story. The city seems more like a big
village, an anarchic collection of bougous, or neighborhoods, where
Malis various ethnic groups live in vast extended familiesthe Bamana with the Bamana, the Songhai with the Songhai, the Peulh with

The Noutrole family (left) have been woodcutters for the last 35 years. On
any given day, they may down at least a dozen trees, which are later used to
produce charcoal. Here they drive carts of lumber to their farm in the village
of Koma, near Djenne. Omar Jara (below) burns a copse of eucalyptus trees
in order to clear the land for agriculture near the village of Tingoli.

and by wind. The more current school of thought, drawing on recent studies of climate data, attributes desertification primarily to
the remote influence a cyclical shift in the worlds climate, exacerbated by the accumulation of greenhouse gases warming the
earths atmosphere. In fact, most experts now agree that both factors are involved: The remote influence is the main cause, but it is aggravated by deforestation.
One morning,I went to the Institute of the Sahel,which was founded
in 1976, after the first famine took a quarter of a million lives. Its
members are eight Sahel countries (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad,
the Gambia, Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, and Senegal) as well as Cape
Verde, the islands in the Atlantic that are desertifying because the Saharas dust clouds are suppressing the winds that bring them rain. I
was taken down a dark, empty corridor the length of a football field
to the office of Boubacar Diallo, the institutes economist and coordinator of food security, who laid out the degradation narrative.
Malians have always had droughts to contend with, he explained in such calm, measured tones that a listener could be forgiven
for not grasping the gravity of the situation. There were droughts 6,000 years
ago and in the thirteenth century that
made the Sahel uninhabitable. But now
there is also the population problem. The
Sahels population is currently 50 million,
and it is growing by 2.7 percent a year. By
2050 it will conservatively hit 100 million.
This is because the women continue to
have seven children.Before,there was equilibrium because of infant mortality and
sickness, but now, with the availability of
modern medicine, population growth is
unchecked.
For the people in the villages, Diallo
went on, wood is the main fuel and an
important source of income, and the forest also provides traditional plant medicines, the first line of defense against
disease. So there is a lot of harvesting.And
in Bamako almost everybody cooks with
charcoal, which produces only one-third
of the energy that raw wood does [though
it has the advantage of being lighter and
more transportable]. So abandoning the
countryside doesnt alleviate deforestation. It actually accelerates it.
The institute tried to politicize the villagers: We showed them
pictures of what it was like 30 years ago and now, so they could see
the degradation, Diallo explained.But it hasnt worked. They keep
cutting and having lots of children. The same piece of land that
used to feed five people now has to feed 20, and it has deteriorated,
so farmers are venturing into more marginal, waterless land.The institute is now concentrating on raising the productivity of land already under cultivation by introducing improved strains of millet

The same piece of


land that used to
feed five people
now has to feed 20,
and it has
deteriorated, so
farmers are
venturing into
more marginal,
waterless land

the Peulh. The women cook on charcoal


braziers in the courtyards. The charcoal
smoke mingles with diesel fumes and the
Sahara dust, so the pall over Bamako is
particularly thick.
The latest United Nations Human Development Report, released in 2005, ranks
Mali as the 174th-worst country in the
world (out of 177) in terms of its annual
per capita income ($994), literacy rate
(19 percent among adults), average life
span (48 years), and infant mortality rate
(122 out of 1,000 live births). Yet Malis
artparticularly its music and wood
sculptureranks high among the worlds
cultural treasures. And perhaps because
there is so little to steal, there is very little crime in the countrys Sahel region
(although there are bandits and Islamic terrorists in the north). Malis government, though cashstrapped, is one of Africas most promising new democracies. Many
people have a family member in New York or Paris who wires money
home, which bolsters the economic picture. But many villages are
barely surviving.
There were once two schools of thought about desertification. The
degradation narrative, as it is referred to by one of its critics, attributed it primarily to rampant deforestation, which is still going on:
When the trees go, the soil is quickly eroded by runoff from storms

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and other crops, fertilizers, and anti-erosion and water-retention techniques. This has slowed down the clearing for farming but hasnt
stopped the clearing for firewood.
Stopping desertification is impossible, Diallo concluded. All
we can do is try to slow it down. It isnt caused only by local deforestation. Global climate patterns are implicated. The whole world is
slowly becoming a desert. That is why everyone should be concerned
about what is happening here. This is the future.
According to the United Nations Environment Program, half of the
worlds land surface28 million of its 57 million square milesis
dryland: plains, grasslands, savannas, steppes, or pampas with a
modest water supply compared to that of the worlds forests. Four million square miles are hyperarid desert, and another 19 million are becoming desert or are threatened with desertification. Desertification
is proceeding at a faster rate than perhaps any other time in recorded
history, with disastrous implications for vegetative cover, biodiversity,
and the existence of 1.5 billion people in more than 100 countries.
Twenty-eight percent of China is desert, and the countrys deserts, including the Gobi and Taklimakan, are expanding at a rate of 3,800
square miles a year despite the most extensive tree-planting campaign
ever undertaken (42 billion trees have been planted since 1982). So
what is happening in the Sahel is a frightening model, an advanced
case of what much of the earths land surface is going to become.

I HAVE HIRED A LAND CRUISER with a driver named


Shek Koulibali, and we are heading up-country with two young Peace
Corps volunteers, Allison Trafton and
Thomas Betjeman. The niece of an old
friend,Allison has been living in a Bamana
village for 14 months.The Bamana are the
largest ethnic group in Mali, more than
half of the countrys population. Thomas
has been living in a Dogon village. The
Dogon have one of the most idiosyncratic
traditional societies in the world. Many of
them live under a 125-mile-long escarpment, like the Anasazi cliff dwellers in the
American Southwest a thousand years
ago. Our plan is to make a five-day tour
of the Sahel, traveling as far north as
Douentza, where the escarpment ends,
talking along the way with villagers and
foreign aid workers who are combating
the desertification. Above Douentza, the
Sahel begins to give way to the desert, and
there is danger of being set upon by bandits or Islamic rebels. On the way back to
the capital, Shek and I will drop off Allison and Thomas at their villages.
We soon leave the smog of Bamako,
but the visibility is at times only a few hundred yards. The sun,
when it appears, is a pale disk, more like a full moon behind the dirty
reddish-gray cloud of dust, which Shek says is called the kungoforoko,
the fog of the bush. One flat-roofed Bamana mud town passes after another, each with its multispired mud mosque. Processions of
women balance large clay jars of water or huge loads of firewood on
their heads. Stacks of firewood line the road. Some villages are devoted entirely to the production of firewood and charcoal. We pass

The sun, when it


appears, is a pale
disk, more like a full
moon behind the
dirty reddish-gray
cloud of dust,
which is called the
kungoforoko, the fog
of the bush

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pickup trucks, long caravans of donkeydrawn carts, all manner of conveyances


piled with towering, teetering stacks of
firewood, minivans bulging with faggotsall traveling to and from Bamako.
There are stiff fines for cutting and
slash-and-burn clearing without a permit, but the people do it anyway, because
they have no alternative, Thomas explains. Malians see so little money,
and theyre so focused on where the next
meal is coming from, they dont have the
luxury of long-term thinking. So the forest is going fast.
Most of the Sahel was originally acacia forest, scruffy and dense in places, extremely diverse in flora and fauna but
very fragile. The greater part of what is
left of the forest, as we can dimly see, has
been thinned out, trampled, overgrazed, or converted to agriculture.
The wildlife that once thrived in it is now scarce. We will see no antelopes or gazelles, no warthogs, leopards, or tortoises, none of the
three species of monitor lizard, one of which can grow seven feet long.
The big animals have all been shot and eaten, Shek says.There are
none left to kill. The only wildlife we see are long-tailed starlings coasting saucily over the road right in front of us, and assorted birds of prey
circling high above in search of rodents and dead livestock.

Left: Fanta Woulogem, who moved to Bamako five years ago from Dogon
country, cooks with charcoal. Above: A muezzin crosses through the courtyard of the Great Mosque of Djenne, the largest mud structure in the world.

We pass fields of cottona thirsty crop that requires the pumping of groundwater and is bleeding down the already drought-stressed
water tableand other fields with gigantic white calabashes lying
in them.We see mango groves and commercial plantations of neem,
tamarind, and kalia tea. Almost 150 miles northeast of Bamako,
cultivation gives way to rock desert. The rock strata have been eroded
into stacks of brown waferscurious artifacts known as torres, or
towers. In the crevices between them stand big baobab trees, with
bloated trunks and stubby, bristle-tipped branches. The baobab is a
very useful tree for the people here. Its inner bark can be twisted into
rope; its fruit is ground into a cereal and made into candy. Wherever
we stop, children run up to sell us plastic bags of white baobab candy,
their eyelashes and lids coated with red dust from the kungoforoko.
Goats have penetrated every corner of the landscape. Every reachable plant not protected by thorns or toxic alkaloids has been clipped
by their teeth. I wonder how many species have been chewed to extinction. The Sahel is hardly a natural landscape anymore. It belongs to the goats.

WE STOP AT ALLISONS VILLAGE, near the trading center of San, 180 miles northeast of Bamako. It is called Koroguelenbougou and is down to 300 permanent residents, less than half as
many as it once had. Most of the young adults have gone to try their

luck in Bamako or one of Malis other cities, attempting to break into


the modern world rather than struggle with the increasingly marginal viability of traditional agriculture. They come back only at harvest time. It is bone dry here and baking hot, but nothing compared
with what it will be like in two months, when the dry season climaxes
with ground temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit and higher.
The forest is pretty much gone, Allison says as we motor through
a flat, desiccated landscape devoid of plant life except for a few tall
trees along what appear to be property lines. It is hard to conceive
how anyone could eke out a living here. Each family has a piece of
land and takes care of what trees and medicinal plants remain on it,
and they dont poach each others, so private ownership offers some
protection for the vegetation that is left, she explains.
We pull into the village. A crowd gathers around the car and Allison and the villagers exchange long, traditional greetings: Has there
been peace in the day? Is your family healthy? How is your mother,
your father, your children and relatives? Hows the wife? How were
the people in Bamako? I am growing impatient because I have the
runs. A boy is sent off to collect some leaves that are brewed into a
bitter tea; it works. The Malian herbal pharmacopoeia can be highly
efficacious, as Western researchers have discovered.
Allison, a 24-year-old blonde in a sunbonnet, has won the villagers
hearts with her selfless dedication and beautiful manners, but she is
finding it a challenge to learn the language and to understand how the
villagers see things and what they need.Water, of course, is the biggest
issue. The three village wells are filling with sand because the water
table is sinking, she says, so Im helping repair their walls and line
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their bottoms with cement and rocks. Any day, she is expecting a
pump from World Vision,a Christian organization based in the United
States that has an office in San, 14 miles away. Its going to be huge
for women, she continues. They spend two hours in the morning
and another two in the evening hauling up buckets from the wells.
In 2003, before the rains, the village ran out of food, as it had repeatedly since 1968. But this time the villagers had stored millet, their
main crop, from the previous years harvest in a bank that Allisons predecessor started, so they could borrow enough grain to get
through the worst of the shortage. When the new crop came in,
they restocked it.
We find several elders in the one-room school, relearning their
ABCs, which they were taught in the French colonial schools in the
late 1950s but have forgotten. The illiteracy rate in Mali is shocking:
an overwhelming majority of the men and women cant read. The
old men, sitting at tiny desks with their frizzy gray beards and skullcaps, beam the imperturbable good cheer that I often encounter in
Africa, even in the most horrible circumstances. Sacks of millet take
up half the room. The school doubles as the grain bank.
One of the elders reminisces about the drought in the early
1970s. Allison translates his Bambara (the language of the Bamana).The first year we were reduced to eating roots and leaves, but
we stayed. The next year we finally gave up and abandoned the village and went to the cities.
Why has everything been drying up? I ask.
We dont know, he says.It is the will of Allah.You can resist what
men want you to do, but you cant fight your destiny.
Overpopulation, deforestation, overgrazingdo these have anything to do with it?
No, says another man. When we were growing up in the forties and fifties, we cut a lot of wood, but still the rains came. When
the rains stopped, the trees died. The cutting of trees did not stop the
rain. Allah gives rain. He is so old. He knows better than us.
Last year we planted 1,500 Acacia senegalensis trees around the village,Allison says. Theyre good for the soil, and a French rural development organization says it will buy the wood. But a tree crop
takes longer to come in than an annual food crop, and a big drought
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Above: Cliffs loom over a road dotted by acacia trees on the outskirts of Dogon country. Right: A carved wooden head lies in the courtyard of a cliff
dwelling; the ceremonial object belonged to a shaman, who had recently died.

can wipe it out. These people dont have the luxury of waiting 10 years
to be rewarded with the fruit of their labor, of investing time and energy in something that they may get a return on in the distant future but that every year they have a chance of losing.
When the rains come, we have to plant millet and other crops
every day, from sunup to sunset, for four months.We dont have time
to plant trees, a third elder says.
This explains why none of the reforestation programs in Mali
have been catching on in the villages. And the second mans contention that desertification has more to do with the lack of rain
than the lack of trees is borne out by recent scientific findings,
which indicate that the remote influence is a more important factor than the degradation narrative. The drought in the Sahel seems
to correlate with El Nio, a cyclical warming in the Pacific Ocean
that can cause a disruption in global climate. During an El Nio
year, a complex system of atmospheric conditions interacting
over vast distances weakens the moisture-laden winds that come
up to the Sahel from the Atlantic during the summer monsoon
season and bring rain.
There is consensus among climate scientists that the current global
warming trend, the consistent rise in the worlds mean temperature since 1970, has a distinct human fingerprint. The desertification of the Sahel may therefore be doubly anthropogeniccaused
not only by the physical removal of its vegetative cover but also by
faraway emissions from smokestacks and cars.

WE CONTINUE TO DJENNE, in its heyday the biggest city


in West Africa, approaching the size of medieval London until 800
years ago, when a big drought drove everyone out (the population at
the time was not large enough for deforestation to have played a role).
It is still recovering from the 1983-84 drought, when all the herds that
sustained the city were lost and there was nothing to eat. Most of the
buildings are made of mud, including Djennes mosquethe largest

MAP BY BLUEMARBLE MAPS

AFTER SPENDING THE NIGHT in a nice little whitewashed

mud structure on earth and one of the wonders of Africa. Its imam
is like the archbishop of Canterbury, and there are some 60 Koranic
schools in the city, which is little changed from the thirteenth century.
A colorful cornucopia of ethnic groups in turbans and boubous barter
in the citys numerous bazaars. Camels saunter down its dusty streets.
Djennes fortunes depend on the annual flooding of the Nigers inland delta.From here on up to Timbuktu,the northeast-flowing Niger
spills its banks during the rainy season, forming the worlds secondlargest inland delta (after the
Okavango River delta in
SAHARA D
Botswana). The river becomes
a labyrinth of lakes and one of
the most fecund freshwater fisheries in Africa,with raucous nesting colonies of waterbirds.There
are 111 waterbird species that
either breed in the Delta or depend on it as their wintering
grounds from Europe.Only five
nesting colonies remained after
the drought,from 1969 to 1973.
In the old days, flood-recession agriculture, a simple but
ingenious practice, enabled
Djenne,and later Timbuktu,to
flourish. After the delta had
flooded, as soon as the water
seeped into the ground and the
soil was gleaming with a rich new layer of sediment, the people sowed
their crops. There was enough residual moisture in the soil to produce
prodigious harvests without a drop of rain. In 1983,World Vision expanded and improved the practice on eight square miles near Gao,
and villagers grew bumper crops of sorghum. Even though this project was phased out in 2003, with the recent rains, flood-recession agriculture is returning to the delta. It may save the day for Mali, or at least
buy some time until the next drought, although parts of the country
where it hasnt rained may still be in trouble.

adobe hotel, we reach Svar, on the edge of Dogon country, where


300,000 people live in villages of mud scattered over 5,000 square
miles, much of it bare rock. The Dogon, who live under La Falaise,
or the Cliff,as the escarpment is called, mummify their dead up on
its ledges and believe that some are reincarnated as the little children playing on the valley floor. They dance with masks and stilts like
the Zuni of New Mexico and are extraordinary wood sculptors. An
old Dogon piece can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars in Paris.
Several hours later, we reach Thomass village; the three of us constitute the greatest number of toubab, or whites, who have ever
visited there at one time. We sit with the chief and several elders on
mats woven from palm leaves in front of his house, in a narrow alley lined with cylindrical adobe granaries with rakishly tilting
conical thatch roofs. Each man is swathed in a turban that can be
quickly rewrapped around his entire head, except for the eyes, when
the sand is flying.
It has always been dry here, says the only one of the men who
speaks French. Cest un pays dsertique. This is desert land. But in the
1970s and 1980s things werent going well at all. There was a drastic
reduction in the number of trees. The water table sank below their
root systems and they just shriveled up and died in place. Thomas
is helping the villagers build stone retention walls around the 100foot-high knolls where the millet fields are, to keep the soil from blowing off and going down into the crevices between them. When that
happens, the soil has to be brought back up by mules.
Life is harder because there used to be a lot of fruit trees,says another. Thomas translates his Dogon. Munju with little fruits. Lemon
trees,mangos.Sa berries,which
are like grapes. Add a little
ESERT
sugar, its good.
There is less rain, says a
third,because there are more
people now, and they are doing things that Amba [the
supreme deity] doesnt like,
and it is Amba who brings rain.
BURKINA
The people are not obeying the
FASO
unifying principles. You tell
them they cant burn their fields
and they go ahead and do it
anyway. The young people
arent listening to the old people anymore. They just want
to go to Bamako.
It used to rain before, the
old man continues,because
everybody did what they were
supposed to do. They prayed for rain and it was in their hearts.
But not everybodys heart is in their prayers now, so Amba doesnt listen to them.

AT LEAST 59 ORGANIZATIONS have anti-desertification


programs in Mali, each with a different approach to the problem.We
visit ALCOP, a Canadian program in Douentza, and talk to its project chief, Modibo Goita. ALCOP, he tells us, is growing and distributing saplings of Boscia senegalensis, a tree that sets fruit during the
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most stressful weeks of April and May, when the temperature hits
110 and the villages run out of millet and money. The group is also
combating genetic erosion, the loss of traditional varieties of millet and other food plants, by planting seeds collected from the villages in experimental plots to see which do best in the drought-shortened
growing season. It is collaborating with Israeli arid-land specialists
from Ben Gurion University of the Negev on techniques for getting
the most out of each drop of water, like the use of waffle gardens. In
this strategy, each plant grows in its own little water-retaining mud
box. Another technique involves covering the sprouts with a moisture-trapping layer of straw or with a plastic sheet punctured with
holes through which the sprouts grow.
The Traditional Medicine Center in Bandiagara, which we visit on
the way back to Bamako, was started by the Italian governments international aid agency in 1984 and is now run entirely by Malians.
The center prepares and packages 20 species of native plants that
Pakay Pierre Mounkouro, its director, tells us often work better than
Western drugs for such ailments as hypertension, malaria, constipation, dysentery, and hepatitis.
These plants are in big demand all over the country and are a major cause of deforestation, Mounkouro explains. We are training
the women in 40 villages to grow them and to make cuttings of
trees in the forest without killing them: If the bark is stripped, cover
the gash with mud; if it is a root that you want, dont take the
biggest one. There were 300 species of medicinal plants in this forest, but we have already lost 20 to 25 of them because of deforestation, lack of rainfall, and la rcolte
inconsciente, heedless harvesting. And
once a plant is gone, the knowledge goes.
Cest fini. The old people die, the young
dont get it. So our botanists are in a race
against time.
The medicinal-plant initiative is a
win-win situation,Allison observes.It
protects the forest and reinforces the
people culturally, so they are not so dependent on pharmaceutical products
from the outside.
Another anti-desertification strategy
is to slow population growth. The New
Yorkbased Population Council, which
has a center in Bamako, is trying to persuade Malian women not to marry so
young.Those who stay in the villages often become by the age of 14 the last wife
of someone 30 years older, Judith Bruce,
director of the gender, family, and development program, tells me. If their
parents can be persuaded not to marry
their daughters off right away,but to send
them to work in one of the cities until
they are 18, the girls are able to build a trousseau and develop savoir
vivre and acquire some bargaining power, which will serve them well
when they become wives and mothers. This four-year delay has a staggering effect on demographic growth. It lengthens the span between
generations, and the later a woman has her first child, the fewer she
will have down the line.
Despite all their efforts, most of the organizations I talked to re-

If the trees are


gone, what will
become of the
birds and the
streams? And if the
streams are gone,
what will become
of the fish? What
will become of us
and all that lives?

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main pessimistic. The consensus is that


the villagers will continue to multiply and
cut trees until the Sahel becomes completely denuded and desiccated and uninhabitable; that little more can be done
about the degradation narrative than
about the remote influence. So the Sahel could be doomed.

DARKNESS FELL AS SHEK

and I, alone now, were still 90 miles


from Bamako, and the Sahel in every
direction was soon ablaze with illegal
fires. The degradation narrative was in
full apocalyptic swing.
The functionaries of the Service des
Eaux et Forts who are supposed to
control the fires only work from 7:30
a.m. to 4 p.m., so the people clear and
torch their fields and cut their firewood
at night, Shek explained as we plowed
through a thick curtain of smoke billowing across the road. To
make a field, you are obliged to set fire to the forest. That is why
the service, when it gives you a permit to clear a field, taxes you
for replanting the trees you burn. But nobody wants to pay the
tax, so they burn clandestinely, and in actuality no trees are being replanted.
I recalled that the primatologist Alison Jolly once remarked that

Above: Near Dia, farmers have slashed and burned a forest to create new
farmland. Left: Modibo Goita, who directs a local anti-desertification program,
sees more promise in the sapling of a fruit-bearing Boscia senegalensis tree.

the people of Madagascar, who are similarly devastating their rainforest, are sacrificing their future so they can survive in the present. Shek replied,Do you know why the people here are sacrificing
their future? Because their religion says the future is uncertain. It
is even uncertain that you are going to live to see it, whether it will
be good or bad. The duration of your life, who can know? So
you just have to live in the present, and the future belongs to God.
That is how they think.
After this tirade against the ignorance and fatalism of his countrymen, Shek told me how the searing second peak of the drought,
in 1983, was ended by the capture of a sirne [mermaid] by some
Bozo fishermen, who held her hostage until she unleashed a tremendous deluge that caused floods, then they let her go. I personally
saw her, he assured me. She was dark brown, the color of hippo
skin, and a meter long. She was covering her face, but I could see
that it was somewhat elongated. She was not a god but a gnie
ftiche [a luck-bringing demigoddess] of the water.
We stopped at a roadblock manned by the Service des Eaux et
Forts. Everyone who passes with wood must have a permit,
Shek explained. You go to the service and they ask, what kind of
trees are you going to cut, and how many? You say only caritea
trees, and if they find you with a tree that is not caritea, you pay
a fine. But in all this there is la corruption. So it is impossible to
stop the desertification, and the future of the Sahel is not good.

THE NEWS FROM MALI, after three summers of good rain,


seems more encouraging. Saplings have sprouted in the desertified
land around Allisons village, and in Thomass village only the old people can recall when it was so green. The inland delta has been flooding. Dense rookeries of waterbirds are beginning to pack the treetops
again, and as the water recedes, crops are being sown in the sediment.
But Boubacar Diallo, the Institute of the Sahel economist, was not
overly optimistic about this letup of the drought.The immediate picture for the Sahel is looking wetter, he allowed, and the food security situation is better than it has been in years. But this is only a
temporary respite.
One night, at one of Bamakos numerous night spots, I heard a
musician named Jimi Jakob perform a song he had written called
Ghigi Chyena, which means all hope is gone in Bambara. It was
a haunting rendition of the degradation narrative, a Malian blues
for the Sahel. If the trees are gone, what will become of the birds
and the streams?Jakob said afterward.And if the streams are gone,
what will become of the fish? What will become of us and all that
lives? If you dont have a mother or father, what can you do? We are
the orphans of the world. When the population cuts the forest, there
is no hope. Everything is spoiled. The world is going bad. That is
what this song means.
But as if to temper his catastrophism, to remind us that the ways of
nature, or Allah, are inscrutable, an unseasonable torrent of rain began to pound on the tin roof sheets of the little dive and to pour down
through the numerous holes in them onto the dance floor, where couples were slowly gyrating in the darkness. They moved away from
the splashes and kept dancing.
W I N T E R 20 0 6

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