Raising a crop - or a cow - is getting harder in Africa's drought-hit Sahel, but knowing what's coming can help
By Sebastien Malo
PARANA, Mali, Dec 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Baba Coulibaly, a farmer in Mali, knows just how bitter disputes over food and fodder can become in a time of worsening drought.
Last year, a fellow villager pulled out a rifle and shot dead a nomadic herder because he and his cows had trespassed on the man's field, he recalls.
It was a year of punishing drought in the central Malian village of Parana, he said, and subsistence farmers like Coulibaly saw some half of their harvest lost, forcing them to dip into their savings to escape hunger.
"For sure, if harvests aren't good, the climate is increasingly unpredictable, and herders come on our fields spoiling the little we have, it's going to end violently," said Coulibaly.
Climate change is driving much drier conditions in Africa's Sahel, a belt below the Sahara that has experienced a 50 percent hike in record dry months in recent decades, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research said in a report earlier this month.
In arid Mali, age-old tensions that pit farmers against herders crossing their land in search of fodder are at risk of flaring as warming drives droughts, leading to more crops failing.
Finding ways to reduce those tensions can be a matter of life or death.
Coulibay said it was in 2002 that he and others in the village first noticed the seasons had gone awry.
Rain arrived a month later than usual that year, delaying the planting of seeds in the village, whose hundred inhabitants live in sculpted mud houses baked by an abundant sun.
"It was a shock," said the 32-year-old. Before, frogs croaking or the arrival of stocks signaled the start of the rain season, Coulibaly said.
But "now it doesn't work," he said, with the birds arriving even if there is no rain.
To supplement their falling income from crops, farmers increasingly have taken small contracts as security guards, handymen or house helpers in Mali's cities, Coulibaly said.
But with criminal groups roaming the area, and Islamist groups pushing into once peaceful regions nearby, most would rather stay home and watch over their land and family.
'THINGS CAN DEGENERATE'
On a recent morning, in the neighboring village of Terekungo, women carried on their heads metal basins that shone in the sun, streaming in small groups to the fields to harvest beans.
But the peaceful scene hid a more complicated backdrop.
Ibrahim Toumagnon, a 55-year-old with a salt-and-pepper beard, said conflicts with herders are a regular problem in the area.
Earlier that week, Toumagnon, who cultivates about 10 hectares (25 acres) of millet, rice and beans, surprised a herder snoozing under a tree on his land.
Nearby the herder's animals were busy eating Toumagnon's healthy millet plants, he said.
"When I saw him, I felt like striking him on the head!" said the farmer, laughing loudly as he raised his hoe high in the air to mimick the blow. Instead, he shook the young herder awake and showed him the exit.
But a few years earlier, he recalled, another farmer in a similar situation beat a herder to death.
As farming grows more uncertain even as the pressure to feed sometimes multiple wives and flocks of children remains steady, "for sure things can degenerate," he said.
"People were unhappy because there was little to harvest - it made them impulsive," he said.
For Serigne Bamba Gaye, who teaches at the Center for High Defense and Security Studies in Dakar, harsher climate variations that exacerbate conflict have become a "central" issue across the Sahel, a semi-arid region that includes Mali.
Small farmers losing their cool, with fatal results, in Parana and Terekungo are examples "that can be multiplied infinitely," he said in a telephone interview.
A range of efforts to curb such tensions are underway, including a U.K. government-funded effort to set up pastoralist corridors in the Sahel, to ensure herders can move their livestock - including across national borders - safely.
Another way to help ease the pressure, experts say, is to help farmers grow more in harsher times.
Since the 1990s, humanitarian projects seeking to help farmers by equipping them with state-of-the-art data on climate and weather have been expanding in the region, said Amanda King, a researcher at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington think tank.
"That early intervention is among the best kinds of humanitarian assistance to keep from crossing tipping points that could lead to conflict," said King, who works for the group's environmental change and security program.
"You need to look at early warning signs in order to prevent these risks."
Sandji - one such initiative that kicked off in April - offers farmers in the two villages a text with a daily weather forecast for 25 CFA francs ($0.05) a day - the cost of about two tomatoes.
Forecasts are not new here, with radios countrywide relaying the Mali's weather agency's predictions.
But those forecasts cover tens to hundreds of square kilometers, a far cry from the pinpoint accuracy of Sandji, which the U.K. government has been funding through the Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme, said Bouba Traore, a scientist working on the project.
Farmers who use Sandji receive forecasts tailored to a 3-square kilometer (1-square mile) area from their exact geo-location at the time they registered for the service, he said.
Poor mobile phone network quality has been an issue in three of the 30 villages where the project operates, Bouba said.
But farmers find ways to manage: some climb on their house to grab a signal, while others walk the area looking for a connection.
Service has not been a problem for Sonou Toumagnon, Ibrahim's younger brother.
"Today, probable rain in the afternoon. Tomorrow, probable rain," read a text on the 36-year-old's old Tecno cell phone. The brothers share the information, he said.
It's already had one big payoff, he said.
Weeks earlier, Ibrahim and two of his brothers laid their freshly-harvested beans on their shared house's corrugated tin roof to dry them in the sun.
Sandji, however, forecast rain that day, raising the risk the crop could be spoiled.
"The weather wasn't at all menacing," Ibrahim remembers. But hours later, when the sky opened up with rain, the beans stayed dry - tucked away in a metal drum ahead of the showers.
(Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Laurie Goering
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