Magazine article American Forests

A Vision in Mali

Magazine article American Forests

A Vision in Mali

Article excerpt

Mali is a landlocked nation of 461,389 square miles in central west Africa. Normally this small African republic receives little attention in the U.S. press, but popular unrest during the winter of 1991 changed that somewhat. Demonstrations by students and workers against the military government led to a crackdown, but now Mali has returned to its customary obscurity in U. S. newspapers.

Starting in the 1880s and ending in 1958, Mali was an administrative unit French West Africa. Long before French colonization, the region that roughly corresponds to present-day Mali was the site of several ancient African kingdoms including the Mali and the Songrai. It is the home of the fabled cities of Mopti and Timbouctou, and it was crossed by ancient inland trade and pilgrimage routes leading from coastal west Africa to the Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Arabian peninsula.

Mali is defined by two geographic features: the rich inland delta of the Niger river and the Sudano-Sahel belt of semi-arid woodlands and near-desert running east-west. The delta supports fish and plant life; the dry belt is characterized by seasonal rains and savannah dry forests of thorn and acacia. Further to the north and west is a vast desert region.

The great majority (86 percent) of Mali's approximately 19.2 million people rely on agriculture for their livelihood, cultivating fields interspersed with woods. At present Mali's population is scattered through rural villages, but its annual urban growth rate of 4 percent compares with a rural growth rate of 2 percent.

Only 7 percent of Mali is forested, and 94 percent of its total forest output is devoted to supplying the nation's energy needs in the form of charcoal and fuelwood. who also earns welcome extra wages as a forest extension agent for a private U.S. relief and development organization.

Ibrahim and his group are meeting at the end of the dry season when daytime temperatures reach 120 degrees F. and the increasingly humid air presses against the land in anticipation of the next monsoon. Agricultural activity ceased weeks ago, and the people are now marking time for the coming planting season. The inactivity is deceiving. In the quiet heat Ibrahim and his group are talking through different ways to bring together the villagers, foresters, and extension agents as a small part of a global movement that is changing how forests are used, managed, and planted.

This is not a movement with a grand design, and most of the revolutionaries have no idea of the history they are making. At this time of year, the Foulani and Dogon who live on the plateau are merely taking care of family and village business, traveling to cities and other villages before the coming rains make the roads impassable.

In this part of Mali, the 1989 agricultural year will be revolutionary because of the simple fact that a few of the farmers will plant trees along with the more traditional plantings of millet. The trees will include mangoes, prosopis, leucaena, and papaya. They will be planted in village compounds and fields and as hedgerows and windbreaks. The trees will eventually be used for fuel, food, fodder, and construction. In the meantime, they will enrich the soil, conserve water, and establish the seeds of local tenure and control over natural resources.

Each tree planting is part of a global revolution in how we think about forests and use them. Unlike political revolutions with their grand rhetoric and violence, this is a technological revolution bringing changes in small, incremental steps; it is more akin to changes brought about by the spread of radios, bicycles, and microcomputers. Other campaigns in this revolution are exemplified by AFA's Global ReLeaf and urban forestry programs, or Kenya's greenbelt movement, or India's tree huggers.

The revolution has been slow in coming, but it carries with it the potential for changing what we understand by the word forestry. …

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