Christian Caryl

The Desert Versus the Delta

Why democracy is good for the environment.


GUIDIO, Mali — I’ve just had the privilege of interviewing Hamadoun Touré, the mayor of a village deep in the heart of one of Africa’s most sensitive environmental crisis zones. He’s not a man who’s easy to reach, but I’m not complaining. To get there, we started by driving for a full day from Bamako, the capital of the West African republic of Mali, to the provincial capital of Mopti. We spent the night there, and the next morning we got on a small boat that took us up the Niger River, another full day’s journey.

It was an extraordinary experience. Chugging along at 25 miles an hour, our boat took us straight through the Inner Niger Delta, one of the world’s most unique ecosystems. Look at a satellite image of this part of the world and you’ll see a big green splash at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. This is where the Niger River (Africa’s third-largest) loses itself in an immense braid of marshes, lakes, and canals, before emerging on the other side to continue its orderly way toward Nigeria. (At 18,000 square miles, the Niger Delta is about 25 times the size of the 734-square-mile Florida Everglades, the most prominent wetlands zone in the United States.)

We saw nomadic herders in a boat guiding a huge herd of swimming cattle across the Niger, a scene reminiscent of the Wild West. We passed the portable wood-and-thatch homes of fishermen who move from place to place in search of the next catch, and adobe villages that boasted mud-colored mosques with spiky towers that looked as if they’d been dripped from wet sand. We didn’t see any of the hippos, African manatees, or electric eels that are known to frequent the waters of the Delta. But we did see monkeys, monitor lizards, and an astonishing variety of birds, evidence of the extraordinary biodiversity of the place.

So you can see why I didn’t mind the effort involved in reaching Mayor Touré. I finally caught up with him in the village of Guidio (pronounced GEE-jo) on the shore of a lake at the northern edge of the Delta, where we talked about the complicated relationship between democracy and the environment. At this time of year, when the water in the Delta is high, the village (pop. 5,500) can’t be reached by car; it has neither electricity nor running water. Despite its remoteness, though, Guidio finds itself at the front lines of the global fight to safeguard the Earth — a challenge with which the mayor and his constituents grapple every day.

I started off by asking the mayor to explain what people in his community are most concerned about. His first answer: "Poverty." His second: "Wood." People in this part of Africa rely on wood to fuel their fires, and they also need it to build homes (usually made here of adobe applied to a framework of branches). But years of uncontrolled cutting, combined with climate change, have devastated the forests that once surrounded Guidio. As a result, the sands of the Sahara Desert, which used to start many miles north of the village, have now moved right up to its edge. They know that their community’s past practices have contributed to the desertification that threatens them, and they’re trying to change. But they’re desperately poor, so they’re struggling to find alternatives.

The villagers’ plight might sound exotic and remote, but it’s actually our problem too. The Niger Delta is under severe pressure. As we traveled through it, I was struck by how densely populated the area is: everywhere we went, there was someone in a boat or on the shore. 1.4 million people — fishermen, farmers, nomadic herders — depend on the Delta’s water, grass, and fish for their livelihoods, and overuse has been taking its toll. The five countries along the Niger’s course have all been taking out as much water as they can for irrigation and drinking, and demand continues to rise. And then there’s climate change. To Mayor Touré, who has spent a lifetime watching rainfall shrink and shorelines recede, this isn’t a bone of ideological contention — it’s a palpable reality.

Losing the Delta would certainly destabilize Mali, since those 1.4 million people (in a country of 15 million) would suddenly find themselves desperately looking for new livelihoods — something that this country, already one of Africa’s poorest, really can’t afford.

And not only for economic reasons. Last year, an alliance of Tuareg separatists and al Qaeda-affiliated jihadis managed to seize control of the country’s north (an area the size of France). The prospect that this rogue territory could become a sort of Taliban state in the center of West Africa so unnerved the government in Paris that French President Francois Holland dispatched a contingent of his own troops to Mali to put an end to the rebellion. Experts pointed out that one factor contributing to the revolt was a recent spate of drought that exacerbated the area’s longstanding economic problems.

The Delta reminds us powerfully of the world’s interconnectedness.

Bakary Kone, of the environmental organization Wetlands International, says that one recent study shows a remarkably precise correlation between the steady decline in the population of purple herons summering in Europe each year and the decline of water levels in the Delta, where most of the birds winter and breed. Dozens of species of birds, animals, and fish have already disappeared, says Kone.

That overlaps with the personal experience of Mayor Touré, who notes that older people in the area can recall the days when lions, hyenas, and jackals still lurked in the now-vanished woodlands. "Many kinds of birds and fish have gone," he says.

So what does all this have to do with democracy? A lot. Mali prides itself on the resilience of its democratic institutions — something that’s much more typical of contemporary Africa than you might expect.

  Twenty-four years ago, three African countries were democracies; last year, 19 were.

Twenty-four years ago, three African countries were democracies; last year, 19 were. The mayor, himself an elected official, believes that there’s a lot that local people can do to revive the Delta’s beleaguered ecology — but only if they can agree on what needs to be done. That, he says, requires constant discussion among everyone in the community — among all concerned "stakeholders," as humanitarians would put it. And in fact, local democratic institutions help to build consensus. "Whatever the local assembly decides, people have to abide by it," explains Mayor Touré.

The villagers are desperately trying to learn from past mistakes by doing what they can to resuscitate the Delta’s ecology. They’re participating in schemes to restore the Delta’s native swamp grass as well as replanting trees. Several international nongovernment organizations, including Wetlands International and the Switze
rland-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), are helping out with advice, organizational assistance, and some funding. Mali’s democracy allows plenty of civil society activity, in contrast, say, to Russia, where these foreign NGOs would not even be allowed to help.

Key among those efforts are projects helping locals supplement their livelihoods in ways that don’t degrade the Delta. IUCN, for example, gives training and microcredits to women to help them start small businesses (in animal husbandry, for example). Touré praises the community’s elected representative to the national parliament, who, he says, has done a good job of making the central government aware of the region’s problems.

Otherwise, though, the government in Bamako is conspicuous by its absence — or its corruption, a notorious problem in Mali’s system of governance. Politicians in the capital, for example, have signed off on opaque deals that hand over thousands of square miles of arable Niger Delta land to foreign companies (South Africa and Saudi Arabia).

Even high-ranking bureaucrats say they’ve never been apprised of the details behind the agreements. Kone says that thousands of people in the Delta have already been forced off the land, which will now be used to consume precious resources and grow food for people in places most Malians will never have a chance to see.

Perhaps the most notorious agreement was drawn up between Mali’s ex-president Amadou Toumani Touré and the late Muammar al-Qaddafi. The contract set aside 250,00 acres (roughly 391 square miles) of good Delta land (and the water that came with it) to grow produce for Libyans. But Qaddafi’s death in the 2011 revolution and Touré’s fall from power in the military coup that derailed Malian democracy for a time last year have left that deal in tatters. The Chinese engineers who had already started digging a canal to divert water to the Libyan agro-complex have fled, and the project has since been abandoned.

What’s happening with the other land deals in the wake of Touré’s death remains unclear. Yet what’s evident is that Mali and its environment need more democracy, not less. Accountability and transparency can’t solve all the Delta’s problems, to be sure; many of the factors involved are much bigger than Mali alone can handle. And finding proper jobs for the region’s people, in a country that’s still one of the poorest in Africa, is a gigantic challenge.

Still, shining light on the government’s books — especially where the vast flows of foreign aid to Mali are concerned — would be a great place to start. It would also be good news for the Delta, which might then begin to see more of the public services and benefits it’s been promised over the years. But it’s not only Malians who should be worried how the story turns out.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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