As rains worsen, Mali's hunger season fuels deforestation

by Soumaila T. Diarra | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 25 September 2014 22:00 GMT

Kaidia Samake, 56, works on land she has planted to sorghum and beans in Gwelekoro, Mali. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Soumaila Diarra

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But help to find other sources of income – and fines for cutting – could make a difference

SANANKOROBA, Mali (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – For Kaidia Samake and her 14 family members, what the people of Mali call the “hunger season” may not end in October, when the first harvests are due.

“Look at this farm and you will understand how it won’t be possible to harvest these young crops of sorghum and bean,” says the 56-year-old, disappointment written on her face. 

Traditionally, women like Samake in the rural municipality of Sanankoroba, in Mali’s south, compensate for poor harvests - like the one expected this year because of poor rainfall - by gathering and selling firewood in order to buy grain or food.

But worsening crop yields caused by erratic weather, combined with severe deforestation in the area, are diminishing the options for impoverished villagers.

Some are becoming aware that continued destruction of forests is not a long-term solution.

THE HUNGER SEASON

In Samake’s village of Gwelekoro, it is normal for farmers to be affected by food shortages between June and October, the rainy season when crops have been planted but not yet harvested. 

The hunger season is perilous for the village’s subsistence farmers, who say that for the past four or five years harvests have been badly affected by unpredictable rainfall.

Samake’s first crop this year, rice, failed due to lack of rain. She is sure that food shortages lie ahead for her family.

“I have nothing left to eat. Even yesterday I went to work on someone else’s farm, and I used the money he gave me to buy grain,” she said.

The women of Sanankoraba often make money by cutting down trees to sell as firewood.

“The money is used to buy food,” Samake said. But now that the village has exhausted the nearby woods, women like her must travel far from their homes to fetch firewood. Samake walks 6 kilometres (nearly 4 miles) each way.

In Gwelekoro, piles of firewood in front of most houses testify to how deeply people rely on cutting trees to feed themselves.

The forest can be a source of food products as well, but this too is under threat as rains become more unpredictable.

“Last year, I could face the food shortage by selling shea butter and shea kernels. Now we had to go fetch firewood near neighbouring villages. The shea trees didn’t make enough fruit this year,” said Benedje Samake, 54, another resident of Gwelekoro (who is not related to Kaidia Samake). 

RISING DEFORESTATION

Tree-felling by locals is the main cause of deforestation in the area, and the impact is clearly visible. The only trees taller than 2 metres are local species, such as shea and néré, that are preserved for their economic utility. 

According to Binta Samake, another inhabitant of the village, the middlemen who buy firewood now prefer stronger, higher-quality wood from remote villages that are not affected by deforestation.

Mamadou Bagayogo, who manages an environment protection project for Mali Folk Centre, a local nongovernmental organisation, says that firewood trading has deforested hundreds of square kilometres of land around the Malian capital, Bamako.

The centre has headquartered one of its environmental protection programmes in Sanankoroba, hoping to deter farmers from trying to make money from cutting trees. As a result of their efforts, residents have now decided to preserve more than 100 hectares of trees.

“Those who need the leaves of medicinal trees can go gather them in the forest, but it is forbidden to cut the trees for firewood. It is also forbidden to make bushfires there,” Benedje Samake explained.

FINES FOR CUTTING TREES

Under the preservation scheme, villagers have themselves decided that those who cut shea or néré trees nearby, or any trees in the forest preserve, will face a penalty of 25,000 CFA francs ($50). 

The Malian government reported in 2011 that about 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of forest are lost each year in Mali because of human activity. Authorities try to combat those activities with both information and legal sanctions. 

The best way to reduce locals’ pressure on the environment, according to Bagayogo, is by helping them develop new sources of income. The Mali Folk Centre is working with farmers on projects such as honey production and cultivating vegetables and other items that can be sold instead of firewood.

But the development of new economic activities may take time to spread, and faces some obstacles. In Gwelekoro, for instance, women do not have the right to own land, and men who own land may sell it during difficult times to make ends meet. That can reduce the area where women can gather wild products.

 “(When) we go to gather firewood, people say we have to stay around our village because our men have sold all their farms to rich men from Bamako,” Kadia said.

Soumaila T. Diarra is a freelance journalist based in Bamako with an interest in environmental issues.

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