Following a recent field visit to central Mali, Camilla Toulmin reports back on local struggles and new initiatives driving change.
Last month I spent a fortnight in Mali to get my new research project under way. It was the height of the hot season, before the monsoon rains bring down the heat. But the mango harvest was also at its height, and there is nothing quite like a truly ripe, sweet mango.
I had a fascinating time visiting people in government, non-govermental organisations and universities in the capital Bamako, and spending a week in Ségou, 240km downriver on the edge of the irrigated zone.
The peace process, so vital in building a stable, secure future for the country, is slow-moving. Many people fear it will fall apart unless it picks up political momentum. In addition, Mali's people, particularly local communities, face a range of challenges, which I aim to document over the forthcoming year.
1. Mounting pressures for land ownership
Everyone is talking about land; who's trying to get it and the game playing in urban and peri-urban areas. Land prices are shooting up, with the fields around Bamako and Ségou dotted with houses in various stages of construction.
Land titles and tenure policy used to be subjects only for us policy wonks, but now titres fonciers [land titles] are on everyone's lips. The rush to get a title on land has caused such problems that the government suspended all further issue of titles nearly two years ago. While this provides breathing space to try and establish a more credible system, demands for land are stacking up.
A new Loi Foncière Agricole (LFA or Agricultural Land Law) is due to be debated in the National Assembly this autumn. This law introduces innovative new methods, such as local Commissions Foncières, to register land possession and transactions, and address land conflicts.
There is great hope that the LFA will offer greater security to those who risk losing their land and homes. But there's growing concern about widening inequality, and growing numbers of poor, landless people.
2. Herders-farmer tensions nearing breaking point
Herder-farmer conflicts are becoming widespread and murderous. Last month's shocking events in the village of Dioro, near Tenenkou, left at least 30 people dead.
A herd of hungry cattle can do great damage to fields, while farmers too readily plough up livestock routes. But herders and farmers have been living side by side for many generations with a sense of reciprocity and mutual interest despite these tensions. It seems much of this has now been eroded.
Pastures have diminished as cultivation has surged into former grazing lands, and the glue which tied people together has weakened. In my study area, pasture shortages mean that herds spend very little time around the village and, once watered at the well, head off deep into the bush for several days. This limits access to the dung farmers need to keep their soils fertile, so cereal harvests are suffering.
3. Villagers are being driven from their land
I find it hard to understand how people are simply expected to accept government actions that lead to great injustice.
Take the operations of the Office du Niger, the state agency with rights and responsibility for the irrigated area running north of the Niger River from Ségou and Markala, zoned for rice and sugar. Since it was established by French colonial authorities in 1932, the office has had formal rights over all land that is potentially irrigable – that's to say up to two million hectares in the zone around the Canal du Sahel.
About 100,000 hectares are currently under controlled irrigation but further investments are planned. In 2009, the government agreed a 50-year lease to N-Sukala, a Chinese company growing sugar cane, for 20,000 hectares of land on the western side of the Canal, pushing villagers with fields in the area off their farmland.
When I passed through the area two years ago, bulldozers were grubbing up trees and bushes, digging canals, and building roads and bridges. Today, the villages are still there but sugarcane runs up to their door, and they've lost all their cropland.
According to the principle of state domanialité the government is behaving legally. But while legal, it does not seem right or legitimate to evict people from lands they have farmed for generations, without first agreeing some form of compensation.
Government officials say they've set up a committee to review what might be done for these people. But villagers in Tekena and NGololabougou have not as yet been compensated for their loss of land.
The widely held view seems to be that these villagers, since they don't have formal rights, should just move and find land elsewhere – but where such land might be found isn't clear. All the neighbouring villages are facing land shortages.
Since this first allocation of 6,500 hectares for sugar cane is due to be expanded to 20,000 hectares, neighbouring settlements should start worrying. Tekena village had taken the case to the tribunal in the local town of Markala, but without success.
Since the new LFA does not question the principle of domanialité, more needs to be done to ensure that when land is taken for "public benefit" the terms of compensation are fair, and delivered promptly.
4. Mali's decentralisation programme is advancing
Having spent a week in Ségou, I see how much Mali could gain from greater decentralisation. Most political and economic power is currently based in Bamako. Even people working in Ségou are often in the capital, keeping their ears close to the networks of power.
The beginnings of a shift in power and activity are under way with the setting up of a University in Ségou in 2012, and new universities planned in Sikasso and Timbuctou (the latter of course is the site of one of the world's oldest centres of learning).
And 10 Agences Régionales de Développement have recently been set up to ensure the shift in economic development happens in practice. Real decentralisation would bring huge benefits, reducing pressures on land, transport, and housing around the capital and building more effective institutions across the region.
Examining three decades of change
My own research work is off to a good start. I am writing the story of the small mud village in central Mali I studied in 1980-82. I want to describe how things have changed over 35 years in terms of land, livelihoods, people and values.
I have got my research permit, hired a research assistant who knows the area well, and found aerial photos from 1952, 1965 and 1989. These show shifts in land use around the village, such as the steady encroachment by fields into grazing land, and consequent pressure on pastures. My work will compare these pictures with those from 2000 onwards.
We're digging out rainfall data and building on notes of rainfall events kept by one of the villagers. We've set up a rainfall gauge so he can measure precipitation over the forthcoming season.
Over 35 years, the population has trebled and very large household size remains a strong feature of these Bambara farming communities. The largest domestic groups are more than 100 people strong.
These are remarkable social enterprises, based around millet, sesame and livestock production, with great capacity to mobilise capital and protect against risk and uncertainty.
My next visit will involve drawing up an inventory of assets, such as wells, cattle and shops. I am also hoping to meet with migrants in Bamako to find out how they see their future – going back to village life, or firmly set in city ways?
And two young men from the village have got as far as Europe – one to Spain and the other to France. Sooner or later, I would like to track them down to listen to their stories.
I am already looking forward to my next visit in September, and will have lots more questions to explore.