Exploring risk and resilience in rural Mali

The year’s most notable book of Mali-focused research is, to my mind, Camilla Toulmin’s Land, Investment, and Migration: Thirty-Five Years of Village Life in Mali. Based on the author’s fieldwork in the community of Dlonguebougou (central Segou region, north of the Niger River), the book studies how villagers have adapted since the early 1980s to increasingly uncertain livelihoods.

What I admire most about Land, Investment, and Migration is its combination of the best aspects of old-school (i.e., pre-1980s) ethnography with the best aspects of more recent social science scholarship.

Like classic ethnographers, the author undertakes a holistic overview of village life, incorporating regional and village history, community and household politics, economy and farming systems, energy and water extraction, land use, marriage patterns, and mobility. Toulmin has clearly bucked the trend of scholars knowing more and more about fewer and fewer things. Her expansive longitudinal perspective on village life is invaluable.

At the same time, her book avoids old-school ethnography’s limitations by depicting Dlonguebougou’s social organization and culture as subject to dramatic change over time and situated within larger structures of power. It inscribes the villagers’ struggles within dramas playing out in Mali and the entire Sahel region.

From Land, Investment, and Migration, courtesy of Camilla Toulmin

Toulmin surveys many types of risk confronting village households, and I will focus on three broad categories. The first pertains to the effects of climate change, a central topic of her research. Like many other communities in the Sahel, Dlonguebougou is dependent on rain-fed agriculture, and thus has been at the mercy of increasingly unpredictable weather patterns. “No other region of the world has experienced such a magnitude of rainfall change in the 20th century,” Toulmin states (p. 56), providing data to illustrate (see Figure 3.4 below). Since 1982 alone the village has seen a three- to four-fold increase in major storms, meaning that more rainfall has been concentrated into fewer, more intense downpours. As one farmer told her in 2014,

The rain which came in the old days was a lot more useful to the crops. When the rain fell, the moisture would last for a week, but now after a couple of days, the soil is dry. It’s the way the rainfall comes which is really different, rather than the total amount. (p. 60)

Farming in the area has had to adapt. The chart below, which I generated from data in Toulmin’s Table 3.2, tells a tale of extensification: every year, villagers have put more and more land under the plow just to keep their harvest from shrinking. The share of village land being farmed rose from 1.5% in 1952 to 21.7% in 2016. Fields close to Dlonguebougou (the pair of bars in the middle of the chart) have been depleted as fallow cycles have contracted, forcing households to clear and cultivate new fields ever farther into the bush. Land scarcity, never perceived as a problem in the 1980s, has now become acute.

Which brings us to the next risk category, demographic growth. Dlonguebougou’s population has tripled over the course of the author’s research, from 534 inhabitants in 1980 to 1589 in 2016. Thus, even though millet harvests didn’t change significantly during that period, the per-capita share of the harvest declined precipitously–from 502 kg to 183 kg. For some households this means eating less, but most have diversified their activities to incorporate new sources of nutrition and income. Available land cannot, on its own, sustain the growing population.

Falling infant and child mortality explains much of this growth, fueling a baby boom leading to both larger households and a fragmentation of households over time (see Figure 5.3 below). Even for Mali and other West African societies, Dlonguebougou’s households are extremely large (average size in 2016 was 33, up from 18 in 1980), and are one means of spreading risk. The resident farming population is augmented by a further 800 people who come seeking land to cultivate around the village during the rainy season, many of them displaced from massive irrigated agriculture projects 30 km or even farther away.

The villagers’ increasing uncertainty about their future access to land brings us to a third category of risk, relations with the state. This is not a new problem: Toulmin recounts a 1980 visit to the chef d’arrondissement (the highest representative of the central state at the local level) whom she found forcing the village chiefs in his district to wait outside his house in the brutal sun, merely to demonstrate his power over them. He had kept them there for five days. Such officials in postcolonial Mali inherited their roles from French colonial administration and retained much of the latter’s arbitrary, brutal style of commandement.

Nowadays the Malian state’s deficiencies tend to manifest as ambiguity over land tenure, a problem intensified by the introduction of elected local governments in the late 1990s and actively encouraged by the administrative bureaucracy. Land grabs by foreign companies and the donor-driven push to expand large-scale irrigation projects have generated many landless farmers in the region, some of whom come to villages like Dlonguebougou in search of fields to cultivate. And since 2012, of course, rampant insecurity has afflicted central Mali as government security forces have demonstrated their incapacity to protect local populations–when those security forces aren’t themselves causing the insecurity.

Not all the news from Dlonguebougou is discouraging. Villagers have proven quite resilient in adjusting their livelihood strategies to the various constraints they have faced. As crop yields for millet have dropped, many farmers have begun growing sesame, mainly as a cash crop. Their long-standing migration networks have become more extensive, reaching well beyond West Africa, and more inclusive, as young women have joined young men in spending time as migrant workers outside the village. (See Figure 7.3 at right, showing the activity and destination of each of the village’s 23 male migrants in 2017.) The most popular destination is Bamako, where some settle permanently. This diversification of risk-management strategies has paid off, overall: Toulmin shows that materially, Dlonguebougou households are better off today than they were in the 1980s.

Unlike a lot of anthropologists these days, Toulmin doesn’t shy away from producing research that’s relevant to policy. That’s probably because she’s actually — gasp — an economist, one who does actual fieldwork! She concludes her book with a discussion of future trends and suggestions to make government- and donor-led initiatives better at building resilience at the household and village levels–not just in Dlonguebougou or the Segou region, but throughout Mali and beyond.

Land, Investment, and Migration shows that the challenges to life and prosperity in the Sahel are daunting. But it also gives one hope that they can be met. Painstaking research like Toulmin’s will be indispensable for anyone–aid workers, civil servants and politicians–who is rising to meet these challenges.

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8 Responses to Exploring risk and resilience in rural Mali

  1. jmoses613 says:

    Thank you. Very helpful

  2. David Nobbs says:

    Encouraging story on a couple of fronts…. XX D

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. priffe says:

    Interesting. Her own graphs show what is (or should be) common knowledge – that the worst droughts of the last century lasted from around 1965-85. It ended magically with Live Aid (thank you sir Bob). Droughts so devastating that it forced tuareg and others to abandon their nomadic lifestyle.
    Then she claims the increased rainfall is damaging, which is not exactly true, but varying rainfall patterns can of course create problems that need to be handled.
    Then the real story – a threefold increase in population since the 1970s. Same in Mali as Yemen, Syria, Sudan….the climate change story is put forward while the real reason is obvious – they have needed to triple their crops, and their water use. Good thing then they have more rain now.
    For those of us who have travelled extensively through the region, the greening of the Sahel is visible. Villages that could be seen from a mile away are now shielded by trees.
    This was obvious already fifteen years ago, but has since accelerated.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      I must have missed the part where she claims that more rain is damaging–could you show me where that claim appears? Her point, as I understood and tried to represent it, was that the average annual rainfall is less important than the distribution of rainfall across the growing season. Perhaps I didn’t communicate that adequately in my review.

      • priffe says:

        “It’s the way the rainfall comes which is really different, rather than the total amount.”
        Would of course be nice to back that up with data, even if anecdotal evidence is also important. How are ground water levels now compared to then?
        But my point was that the important change by far is demographical.

      • brucewhitehouse says:

        More rainfall data appear on pages 56 ff., if you ever manage to obtain a copy. As for the demographical (sic) change, it’s a response to risk (as well as another factor behind risk), so difficult to isolate from other forms of risk.

      • brucewhitehouse says:

        As for groundwater, Dlonguebougou has been fortunate: the water table is 25-30m down and seems to have been stable over the years, but has been sinking below 50m in some villages (page 53).

  4. I ni ce, karamɔgɔ! Surprised (thrilled?) to hear that she’s an economist!

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