Notes from the field – Dlonguebougou, Mali

Returning to the village in Mali she first studied 35 years ago, senior fellow Camilla Toulmin finds three changes remarkable.

Oxen plough teams bring bigger fields and easier farmwork (Photo: Camilla Toulmin/IIED)

I am doing research on a small village in central Mali where I did my doctoral fieldwork 35 years ago. Dlonguebougou, in the commune of N'Koumandougou , has become far more prosperous over that time, though if you were to drive past, you'd be deceived by the traditional mud houses. There's hardly a tin roof in sight.

But if you look carefully, you'll see some of the hundreds of solar panels they've invested in, and the odd satellite TV dish. Mobile phones have become widespread, as in many parts of Africa, even if some of them don't have a SIM card, and are mainly for listening to music.

This village of 1,500 people is one of several settlements strung out along the northern edge of the farming zone. If you go further north from here, it's open grazing country, and just a few herders' camps with small fields attached.

Over the past 35 years, much has changed, including a tripling of the population. There are three things that I find particularly remarkable about the changes to this and to neighbouring villages: first, the growing prosperity; second, pressures on land; and third, some of the difficulties that now beset this village and the wider region.

Growing prosperity

Everyone in the village admits that they have got better off, and the business of farming has got easier. Once done by hand, now thanks to ploughs and donkey-carts, farming tasks are quicker and less laborious.

Dlonguebougou is known for its fadenya or competitive rivalry, which pushes individuals and families to outdo each other in getting the biggest harvest, the largest cattle herd, or new assets. This has contributed to a sequence of investment booms in the village, which have brought increased wealth.

Oxen drawn ploughs led to a big growth in groundnut production in the 1950s and 60s, well-digging led to more water-manure contracts with visiting herders in the 1970s and 80s, resulting in better millet yields. In the 1990s lots of people set up shops, sesame became a big cash earner in the 2000s, while solar panels are today's newest asset.

A solar boom

Graph showing investment in solar panels in Dlonguebougou 2000-2016

The price of solar panels has come down a lot since 2000, from 200,000 FCFA to 10,000-15,000 for a personal panel. Since 2000, more than 5million FCFA (US$8,000) has been invested in solar by the villagers, using their own money, not as part of some project activity.

With all these investments, the pattern is similar. One person brings back a new idea, two or three others copy it, others watch and wait. When it's shown to be a good thing, they get involved if they can. Except of course for the poorest and smallest households.

Solar panels provide light in the evening, charge mobile phones, play music, and power TVs and radios. A barber uses a panel to charge his electric razor, the street lamp is charged by a solar panel. It's a technology that makes sense to people. You can go to the local market, buy a panel, set it up on your roof and you've got your own power source right away.

The bush is finished

Second, pressures on land are growing, and the farming system is running into trouble. In the early 80s, people were digging a lot of wells to exchange water with Peul and Maure herders in the dry season. At that time, perhaps 10 per cent of land was cultivated, and the rest was lightly wooded grass fallow. Herders came for good grazing and water.

The villagers said then "land is so abundant the bush can never finish". But in 2005, when I asked the same question, they said "the bush is finished". They have gone from abundance to land scarcity in less than 30 years.

Much land around the settlement is now ploughed up for farming

What has changed? Hundreds of farmers from the south and east have been fleeing their villages and seeking land elsewhere, because of the irrigated sugarcane developed by a Chinese company – Sukala and NSukala. Quelea birds (mange-mil) nest in the sugarcane and ravage cereal fields up to 10km away. They love millet and won't move even when you try and shake them off the plant.

But the sugarcane has also taken the land of many villages on the west side of the Canal du Sahel. I spent a day visiting some of these villages, hearing their testimony. It's a sad tale.

The government gave 20,000 ha of land to the sugarcane company, driving the villagers to the north and west to Dlonguebougou and beyond, begging land to grow their food.

The proportion of land now cultivated around Dlonguebougou is now around 70 per cent. Most of the land that can be farmed is being farmed.

Why does this matter? Because of the resulting difficulties now besetting the region.

Tension over land

There is real resentment over the land given to the Chinese for sugar-cane. People have received nothing in return for the loss of their land.

Farmers don't want money but, since they have lost their farmland, they want an irrigated plot to grow food. Otherwise, as they say, "we call ourselves farmers, but can you really call yourself a farmer if you don't have any land?".

As grazing land becomes fields, this puts pressure on herder-farmer relations. Relations between Peul herders and Bambara farmers have become tense. The herds cause crop damage trying to find something to eat, while some livestock routes have been ploughed up. There have been fights and killings as a result.

How can farming systems that rely on a combination of long bush fallows, and manured village lands adapt to these growing land pressures? 

I could say more about rainfall, migration, land rights, religion or decentralisation. These are all subjects I am exploring and will write up in my next blog.

Camilla Toulmin (Camilla.toulmin@iied.org) is a senior fellow at IIED, a fellow of the Open Society Foundations, and Professor, University of Lancaster, UK