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Feature Story
Forecast: Dry and Brutal
Page 5

After spending the night in a nice little whitewashed adobe hotel, we reach Sévaré, on the edge of Dogon country, where 300,000 people live in villages of mud scattered over 5,000 square miles, much of it bare rock. The Dogon, who live under La Falaise, or "the Cliff," as the escarpment is called, mummify their dead up on its ledges and believe that some are reincarnated as the little children playing on the valley floor. They dance with masks and stilts like the Zuni of New Mexico and are extraordinary wood sculptors. An old Dogon piece can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars in Paris.

Several hours later, we reach Thomas's village; the three of us constitute the greatest number of toubab, or whites, who have ever visited there at one time. We sit with the chief and several elders on mats woven from palm leaves in front of his house, in a narrow alley lined with cylindrical adobe granaries with rakishly tilting conical thatch roofs. Each man is swathed in a turban that can be quickly rewrapped around his entire head, except for the eyes, when the sand is flying.

"It has always been dry here," says the only one of the men who speaks French. "C'est un pays désertique. This is desert land. But in the 1970s and 1980s things weren't going well at all. There was a drastic reduction in the number of trees. The water table sank below their root systems and they just shriveled up and died in place." Thomas is helping the villagers build stone retention walls around the 100-foot-high knolls where the millet fields are, to keep the soil from blowing off and going down into the crevices between them. When that happens, the soil has to be brought back up by mules.

"Life is harder because there used to be a lot of fruit trees," says another. Thomas translates his Dogon. "Munju with little fruits. Lemon trees, mangos. Sa berries, which are like grapes. Add a little sugar, it's good."

"There is less rain," says a third, "because there are more people now, and they are doing things that Amba [the supreme deity] doesn't like, and it is Amba who brings rain. The people are not obeying the unifying principles. You tell them they can't burn their fields and they go ahead and do it anyway. The young people aren't listening to the old people anymore. They just want to go to Bamako.

"It used to rain before," the old man continues, "because everybody did what they were supposed to do. They prayed for rain and it was in their hearts. But not everybody's heart is in their prayers now, so Amba doesn't listen to them."

At least 59 organizations have anti-desertification programs in Mali, each with a different approach to the problem. We visit ALCOP, a Canadian program in Douentza, and talk to its project chief, Modibo Goita. ALCOP, he tells us, is growing and distributing saplings of Boscia senegalensis, a tree that sets fruit during the most stressful weeks of April and May, when the temperature hits 110 and the villages run out of millet and money. The group is also combating "genetic erosion," the loss of traditional varieties of millet and other food plants, by planting seeds collected from the villages in experimental plots to see which do best in the drought-shortened growing season. It is collaborating with Israeli arid-land specialists from Ben Gurion University of the Negev on techniques for getting the most out of each drop of water, like the use of waffle gardens. In this strategy, each plant grows in its own little water-retaining mud box. Another technique involves covering the sprouts with a moisture-trapping layer of straw or with a plastic sheet punctured with holes through which the sprouts grow.

The Traditional Medicine Center in Bandiagara, which we visit on the way back to Bamako, was started by the Italian government's international aid agency in 1984 and is now run entirely by Malians. The center prepares and packages 20 species of native plants that Pakay Pierre Mounkouro, its director, tells us often work better than Western drugs for such ailments as hypertension, malaria, constipation, dysentery, and hepatitis.

"These plants are in big demand all over the country and are a major cause of deforestation," Mounkouro explains. "We are training the women in 40 villages to grow them and to make cuttings of trees in the forest without killing them: If the bark is stripped, cover the gash with mud; if it is a root that you want, don't take the biggest one. There were 300 species of medicinal plants in this forest, but we have already lost 20 to 25 of them because of deforestation, lack of rainfall, and la récolte inconsciente, heedless harvesting. And once a plant is gone, the knowledge goes. C'est fini. The old people die, the young don't get it. So our botanists are in a race against time."

"The medicinal-plant initiative is a win-win situation," Allison observes. "It protects the forest and reinforces the people culturally, so they are not so dependent on pharmaceutical products from the outside."

Another anti-desertification strategy is to slow population growth. The New York-based Population Council, which has a center in Bamako, is trying to persuade Malian women not to marry so young. "Those who stay in the villages often become by the age of 14 the last wife of someone 30 years older," Judith Bruce, director of the gender, family, and development program, tells me. "If their parents can be persuaded not to marry their daughters off right away, but to send them to work in one of the cities until they are 18, the girls are able to build a trousseau and develop savoir vivre and acquire some bargaining power, which will serve them well when they become wives and mothers. This four-year delay has a staggering effect on demographic growth. It lengthens the span between generations, and the later a woman has her first child, the fewer she will have down the line."

Despite all their efforts, most of the organizations I talked to remain pessimistic. The consensus is that the villagers will continue to multiply and cut trees until the Sahel becomes completely denuded and desiccated and uninhabitable; that little more can be done about the degradation narrative than about the remote influence. So the Sahel could be doomed.

Bad Chemistry: A Special Report
Mammoth Mystery

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Photos: Remi Benali
Map: Small World Maps

OnEarth. Winter 2006
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council