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Feature Story
Forecast: Dry and Brutal
Page 6

Darkness fell as Shek and I, alone now, were still 90 miles from Bamako, and the Sahel in every direction was soon ablaze with illegal fires. The degradation narrative was in full apocalyptic swing.

"The functionaries of the Service des Eaux et Forêts who are supposed to control the fires only work from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., so the people clear and torch their fields and cut their firewood at night," Shek explained as we plowed through a thick curtain of smoke billowing across the road. "To make a field, you are obliged to set fire to the forest. That is why the service, when it gives you a permit to clear a field, taxes you for replanting the trees you burn. But nobody wants to pay the tax, so they burn clandestinely, and in actuality no trees are being replanted."

I recalled that the primatologist Alison Jolly once remarked that the people of Madagascar, who are similarly devastating their rainforest, are "sacrificing their future so they can survive in the present." Shek replied, "Do you know why the people here are sacrificing their future? Because their religion says the future is uncertain. It is even uncertain that you are going to live to see it, whether it will be good or bad. The duration of your life, who can know? So you just have to live in the present, and the future belongs to God. That is how they think."

After this tirade against the ignorance and fatalism of his countrymen, Shek told me how the searing second peak of the drought, in 1983, was "ended by the capture of a sirène [mermaid] by some Bozo fishermen, who held her hostage until she unleashed a tremendous deluge that caused floods, then they let her go. I personally saw her," he assured me. "She was dark brown, the color of hippo skin, and a meter long. She was covering her face, but I could see that it was somewhat elongated. She was not a god but a génie fétiche [a luck-bringing demigoddess] of the water."

We stopped at a roadblock manned by the Service des Eaux et Forêts. "Everyone who passes with wood must have a permit," Shek explained. "You go to the service and they ask, what kind of trees are you going to cut, and how many? You say only caritea trees, and if they find you with a tree that is not caritea, you pay a fine. But in all this there is la corruption. So it is impossible to stop the desertification, and the future of the Sahel is not good."

The news from Mali, after three summers of good rain, seems more encouraging. Saplings have sprouted in the desertified land around Allison's village, and in Thomas's village only the old people can recall when it was so green. The inland delta has been flooding. Dense rookeries of waterbirds are beginning to pack the treetops again, and as the water recedes, crops are being sown in the sediment.

But Boubacar Diallo, the Institute of the Sahel economist, was not overly optimistic about this letup of the drought. "The immediate picture for the Sahel is looking wetter," he allowed, "and the food security situation is better than it has been in years. But this is only a temporary respite."

One night, at one of Bamako's numerous night spots, I heard a musician named Jimi Jakob perform a song he had written called "Ghigi Chyena," which means "all hope is gone" in Bambara. It was a haunting rendition of the degradation narrative, a Malian blues for the Sahel. "If the trees are gone, what will become of the birds and the streams?" Jakob said afterward. "And if the streams are gone, what will become of the fish? What will become of us and all that lives? If you don't have a mother or father, what can you do? We are the orphans of the world. When the population cuts the forest, there is no hope. Everything is spoiled. The world is going bad. That is what this song means."

But as if to temper his catastrophism, to remind us that the ways of nature, or Allah, are inscrutable, an unseasonable torrent of rain began to pound on the tin roof sheets of the little dive and to pour down through the numerous holes in them onto the dance floor, where couples were slowly gyrating in the darkness. They moved away from the splashes and kept dancing.

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