Rainfall, grazing, families and land in Dlonguebougou

As part of research recording 35 years of change in one village in Mali, IIED senior fellow Camilla Toulmin highlights five key observations from a recent field visit.

The University of Southampton made a series of large scale photos of the village ranging from 1952 to 2016. Toulmin met with villagers to discuss what the images might mean for the future (Photo: Camilla Toulmin/IIED)

At the start of my research project in Mali last May, I wrote a blog outlining my plans. I was beginning an 18-month study of the villages where I had done my PhD fieldwork from 1980-82, to explore the evolution of land use, changes in livelihoods, and impacts of climate change. Having just completed another two weeks in Mali, I am struck by five things:

1. A lush Sahel

Mid-October is an incredibly beautiful time of year here. People usually think of the Sahel as stark, dry sandy plains. But after a really wet rainy season, the landscape is transformed.

The countryside is green, trees are in full leaf, and the grass is shoulder high. Fields of millet, sorghum and maize are ripening, and rice is turning gold. In the pre-harvest pause, farmers are making charcoal, weaving a new granary, and are busy with social activities – weddings, festivals, and visiting neighbours. 

2. Changes to farm practice

I am struck by the rapid conversion of land for farming. The University of Southampton's GeoData created a stunning series of large scale photos of Dlonguebougou village and its territory for me.

Taken from a mix of aerial photos and satellite images, the first is from 1952, and shows the village lying in a large sea of uncultivated land, a few fields cut close to the settlement, but probably no more than three per cent of the total land area under the plough. Subsequent images for 1965, 1975, 1984, 1995, 2005 and 2016 show the speed of change. Today, two thirds of the land area is either farmed or has been cultivated in the last five years. 

The result is an extraordinary patchwork of fields, big and small, tightly grouped around the village and then scattered in mosaic, up to 15km from the settlement. This pressure on land is not news to the villagers, who for the last 10 years have said "the bush is finished", but the visual impact of the photos is striking. 

Loss of grazing is a big problem for the villagers, who keep cattle, sheep and goats, and for visiting herders. Animals must now be taken further to find forage. That means village fields no longer benefit from the animals' dung, which had kept soil fertility in good shape. 

We met with household heads and members of the women's association to look at the photos and think what they might mean for the future. Some said they should invest in irrigated land, but not sugar cane. Another said that new short cycle crop varieties are needed. A third emphasised the importance of education for their children, since many could not remain as farmers forever.

3. An exceptionally wet year

It's certainly been an exceptionally wet year. Our rainfall gauge, bought last May, shows the total rainfall for this year is 720mm, far more than the expected 400mm. The rain fell steadily through until 9 August, when there was a deluge of 105mm.

The pond at the bottom of the village brimmed over and started flooding the streets. Water was waist high. That's when the houses started to crumble

No one in the village, even the old folk, had ever seen rainfall like it. There was no wind, or thunder, just continuous heavy rain from 9am until 3pm. The pond at the bottom of the village brimmed over and started flooding the streets. Water was waist high. That's when the houses started to crumble. Some fell down. Luckily no one was hurt.

4. A growing population

We've done a new census and the village has trebled in population in the last 35 years, from 520 to 1,580 people.

This growth has been largely from within the village, rather than incomers settling. While there were 29 households in 1980 (averaging 18 people) there are now 48 (with an average size of 33 people). 

There are a few very large households, with five over 100 people strong. Such enormous domestic groups provide significant protection from risk, economies of scale, a better balance between different age groups, and a greater ability to amass investment capital.

But the problems of holding such a large household together can be significant, requiring tact and negotiation skills from the household head. 

5. Profiting from land ownership

Land tenure has become a very hot topic. Getting yourself title to a piece of land is a good way to secure your house and make some money. Land around the capital, Bamako, and big cities such as Ségou and Sikasso is particularly in demand. 

The minister had stopped titles from being issued, because of concern about fraud, but lifted the ban in August. Issuing land titles is an important source of government revenue, and there was probably pressure from elite groups that are accumulating land. 

Legislation due to be debated and passed by the National Assembly next January intends to strengthen farmers' rights and to introduce local land commissions to resolve conflicts.   

Reforms to recognise fully customary land rights are especially needed in the case of the N-Sukala sugar cane plantation, negotiated in 2009 by a Chinese sugar company, and the Malian government. They were given 20,000 hectares of land that had been farmed for generations by seven millet farming villages. Villagers were promised compensation, but three years later, have received nothing. 

One farmer told me their families faced great difficulties. "Without a field, can you really call yourself a farmer? And how am I meant to pay my taxes?” he asked.

While some of his family have set off to find land 100km to the north, those left behind are suffering sickness from the insects that thrive in the cane fields. People there are angry and frustrated that no one seems to care or want to address this fundamental wrong. 

I am digesting what these issues mean for my project, and understanding how land and livelihoods are evolving. 

Camilla Toulmin (camilla.toulmin@iied.orgis a senior fellow at IIED.

This work is possible thanks to the Open Society Foundations, which provided a fellowship grant 2016-17, and to the Binks Family Trust, Edinburgh for its support. Thanks also to the Near East Foundation, which has provided logistical support for Toulmin's travel to the villages, and to research assistant Sidiki Diarra.