What’s behind Mali livestock herders joining jihadist groups

By Tor A. Benjaminsen

This post originally appeared on The Conversation

In Mali, pastoralists have become increasingly disgruntled with a predatory and corrupt state. Flickr/Mary Newcombe

In Mali, jihadist groups have taken control of more than half the country since 2012. How has such a fundamental change been possible in a country previously praised by international observers as a bulwark against radical Islam in Africa?

Several factors contributed to the current crisis in Mali. A key one is the fallout from the Nato bombing of Libya in 2011. The military action led to several thousand heavily armed Tuareg soldiers, who had been serving in the Libyan army, returning home to Mali. This added fuel to a Tuareg uprising that was already simmering in the north of the country.

Some of these Tuaregs –together with jihadists who had come from Algeria after the civil war there in the 1990s – succeeded in advancing south into the Mopti region, before being pushed back in a French counter-offensive in 2013.

But the insurgents have returned. And they now control not only rural areas in northern Mali, but also rural parts of the Mopti Region. They have gained control through a process of gradually establishing small groups in the region. These groups have attracted ever-increasing support from smallholders and, not least, nomadic herders. Meanwhile, Mali’s army and government have retreated to the cities.

Many explanations of this crisis have focused on global political developments and international jihadism. These have included discussions about a wide range of issues. These include the links between local jihadist groups and Al Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), drug trafficking and hijacking of hostages as sources of funding for armed groups, the dynamics, politics and history of the Tuareg rebellions, the weakening of the state, the French and later UN military intervention, the complex and changing Islamic national landscape, and the Malian crisis as a fallout from the Libya conflict.

These contributions give a rich background to the current political crisis in Mali. But an independent lawyer, Boubacar Ba, and I argue in a recent article that to fully explain the expansion of jihadism in the country, it is necessary to study the local political context. In particular, it’s important to understand who has access to environmental resources.

We found that local rural people have become increasingly disgruntled with a predatory and corrupt state. They are also fed up with an economic model imposed by the state and international donors that isn’t taking pastoral priorities into account. Rent-seeking by government officials has been especially intense in relation to conflicts over pastoral land, environmental management and the fight against desertification.

Development favours agriculture

Conflicts over land use help to explain why small-scale farmers, and in particular livestock-keepers, join armed groups. Many herders support the jihadist takeover because they are similarly anti-state, anti-elite and pro-pastoral.

Livestock herders throughout the Sahel are disgruntled by development policies and programmes that favour agriculture at the expense of pastures and livestock corridors. Herders and farmers are unhappy about the way a corrupt state exploits rural peasants. Herders also feel that the development model imposed by the state and international donors ignores their needs.

This model favours agricultural expansion at the cost of pastoralism. The result is that key pastures are lost and that livestock corridors are blocked by new agricultural fields. Herders need to pass with their livestock even if corridors are blocked. This often leads to conflicts.

Corrupt officials abuse rural people

Government officials have, for their own benefit, exploited conflicts over pastoral land, environmental management and the fight against desertification. For example, officials have allowed land use conflicts to go unresolved because they take payments from both parties to support their claims. Another example is the Forest Service randomly fining women collecting fuel wood and herders grazing livestock.

The Forest Service was established during colonial times as a paramilitary organisation. Its primary mandate was to enforce conservation of natural resources and stop desertification through a system of permits and fines. Influenced by the rise of sustainable development agendas in the 1980s and to impress donors of foreign aid, the colonial forest law was revised in 1986 and made even more severe. It introduced extremely high fines compared with the income level in Mali.

As a result, the Forest Service became a vehicle for rural plunder and the target of rural people’s anger. A number of examples illustrate this point.

For instance between 2012 and 2016, at least 10 state foresters were reportedly killed by jihadists or local people in the Mopti region. Anti-government sentiment grew among many young men in the region, and in particular Fulani pastoralists. Many joined various armed groups.

Pastoralists feel that the state, and more recently also the army, sides with farmers against their interests. The entry of jihadist groups has created an opportunity for resistance to the state.

Our research suggests that this resistance is caused by political marginalisation more than by a radical Islamist agenda. One example of this is that in rural areas under jihadist rule, herders wanting access to valuable dry season pasture for their livestock no longer pay bribes or fees to traditional leaders or government officials.

Wrong diagnosis, wrong solution

Despite the violence that jihadist groups represent, many rural people in Mali tend to see them as a lesser evil than a corrupt state. Efforts to solve the crisis in Mali by the government and the international community are bound to fail as long as attention remains on fighting global jihadist groups rather than addressing people’s grievances over access to land and natural resources.

Ces arbres qui cachent des forêts de « greenwashing »

By Benjamin Neimark

This post originally appeared on The Conversation. The English version can be found here.

Planter des arbres est devenu au cours des dernières décennies un mode de compensation écologique plébiscité par les entreprises. iDraw/Shutterstock

Nous n’imaginons pas tout ce que les arbres font pour nous. Leurs racines préviennent l’érosion des sols, leur canopée nous offre de l’ombre ; leurs feuilles se décomposent en nutriments bénéfiques aux plantes qui alimentent le bétail.

Les arbres offrent aussi un habitat pour nombre d’animaux et quantité de produits essentiels à nos modes de vie et nos économies, comme le caoutchouc, le café ou encore les bois durs.

Dans le monde entier, ils contribuent aussi à marquer les frontières et jouent un rôle spirituel, culturel et social primordial au sein de nombreuses communautés de petits exploitants.

Planter des arbres, une pratique en vogue

Dans les années 1980, des organisations caritatives ont commencé à proposer de planter des arbres dans le désert du Sahara, dans l’espoir d’y stopper la « désertification ». Cette démarche impliquait à la fois du « reboisement » (c’est-à-dire planter des arbres à des endroits où ils ne poussaient plus depuis longtemps), et de la « reforestation » (qui consiste à remplacer une couvert forestier disparu).

Depuis, cette idée s’est répandue, et de nombreuses entreprises privées, de la plateforme pour adultes Pornhub (oui, vous avez bien lu) à la marque de prêt-à-porter Ten Tree, utilisent la plantation d’arbres à des fins de marketing.

Sauver la face ou sauver des forêts ?

Pour les entreprises, planter des arbres ou soutenir d’autres formes de restauration des habitats constitue une manière de compenser leur impact environnemental, et ainsi de payer les dommages qu’ils causent par leurs activités. Face à l’aggravation du changement climatique, planter des arbres apparaît ainsi comme un moyen privilégié pour capter le dioxyde de carbone que nous continuons à rejeter dans l’atmosphère.

Les Nations unies elles-mêmes ont mis en place des systèmes offrant aux communautés locales et aux gouvernements une forme d’aide financière pour les encourager à préserver les arbres de la déforestation. Certaines grandes firmes ont ainsi intégré cette économie de réparation aux engagements de leur politique de responsabilité sociale.

La plantation d’arbres au Sahara repose davantage sur les efforts des communautés locales que sur ceux des entreprises. Niels Polderman/Shutterstock

L’indispensable implication des communautés locales

Parmi les programmes existants, une ONG kényane de conservation baptisée Green Belt Movement a été lancée par la défunte Wangari Maathai, prix Nobel de la paix 2004.

À l’origine, la mission de Wangari Maathai avait pour but de permettre aux habitants locaux, en particulier les femmes, de gagner en autonomie et de surmonter les inégalités en restaurant la forêt et en résistant à l’expansion du Sahara.

Malgré l’implication des sociétés et des organisations caritatives, les études ont montré que les contributions les plus essentielles à ce type de programmes étaient celles des agriculteurs et des habitants locaux, et non celles des entreprises.

Dans la mesure où les communautés sont les premières responsables des arbres plantés sur leurs terres, il est essentiel que les projets conçus par des organismes extérieurs soient pensés et mis en œuvre de manière judicieuse et dans l’intérêt des habitants.

Ne pas confondre plantations et forêts

Si certains considèrent que ce système est gagnant-gagnant pour l’environnement, indépendamment de qui le met en œuvre, la compensation ne consiste en réalité en rien d’autre qu’une nouvelle forme de greenwashing utilisée par les entreprises.

Or les dommages environnementaux causés à un endroit ne seront jamais annulés par des réparations, parfois menées à l’autre bout du monde.

Plus grave, la plantation d’arbres, lorsqu’elle est effectuée sans discernement, peut causer davantage de mal que de bien.

Certaines forêts, à la biodiversité très riche, sont rasées à des fins agricoles ou industrielles, puis remplacées par des plantations d’une seule et même espèce, souvent choisie pour ses rendements rapides.

Or une forêt tropicale peut prendre jusqu’à 65 ans pour repousser. Et des parcelles de forêt plantées en monoculture dans le cadre d’une reforestation ne pourront jamais présenter une biodiversité aussi riche.

Peu pertinent écologiquement

Au cours d’un processus de reforestation ou de reboisement, des décisions doivent être prises quant aux essences que l’on s’apprête à replanter : natives ou exotiques, polyvalentes ou à croissance rapide, forêts qui se régénèrent naturellement ou non. Or de tels choix, essentiels, font parfois l’objet de mauvaises évaluations, notamment dans la sélection des espèces.

L’eucalyptus constitue ici un exemple édifiant. Souvent choisi pour sa croissance éclair et sa rentabilité économique, cet arbre est généralement planté sur des terres où il est totalement exotique et qui ne sont pas aptes à l’accueillir. Requérant des quantités d’eau considérables, il assèche alors les nappes phréatiques et entre en compétition avec les espèces locales.

En Europe, le remplacement des chênes natifs à larges feuilles par des conifères à croissance rapide a entraîné une augmentation de 10 % du couvert forestier sur le continent par rapport à l’ère pré-industrielle. Ces nouveaux arbres absorbent toutefois nettement moins bien le carbone que les espèces originelles. En revanche, ils capturent plus efficacement la chaleur, intensifiant ainsi les effets du réchauffement climatique. Replanter des arbres à l’aveugle peut donc, de toute évidence, être la source de nouveaux problèmes.

Au fil de leur longue croissance, les arbres nécessitent une attention continue. Or les systèmes de reforestation et de reboisement consistent bien souvent à planter et à s’en aller – sans que des ressources ne soient investies pour l’entretien de ces jeunes arbres. Particulièrement vulnérables aux maladies et à la concurrence pour la lumière et les nutriments, ils sont alors susceptibles de mourir rapidement.

Des arbres nouvellement plantés peuvent nécessiter entre 3 à 5 années d’arrosages fréquents pour survivre.A3pfamily/Shutterstock

Les arbres, objets politiques

Lorsque des États ou des acteurs privés choisissent des lieux où replanter des arbres, ils le font souvent sans consulter les communautés locales – en ignorant donc le droit foncier traditionnel et la manière dont sont gérées les terres. Or ces sites sont parfois en jachère, ou utilisés par les communautés à diverses fins économiques, culturelles ou spirituelles.

Commettre l’erreur de planter sur de tels sites risque d’exacerber les tensions au sujet des terres et d’encourager un désintérêt pour ces arbres et leur entretien. Dépossédés, les habitants se dirigeront alors vers d’autres espaces forestiers, qu’ils raseront pour cultiver.

Dans certaines communautés, les droits d’occupation ne sont par ailleurs pas détenus par un ménage mais répartis entre hommes et femmes. Ce type de détail est également à prendre en compte avant de planter, pour éviter de créer des tensions au sujet de la propriété des terres au sein des communautés.

S’il est peu étonnant que les arbres intéressent l’économie verte, cela ne signifie pas forcément que les planter soit écologique ou utile à l’harmonie sociale. Laisser les arbres repousser naturellement n’est pas non plus toujours efficace, s’ils ne sont pas en mesure de survivre sans intervention extérieure. L’implication de la communauté est donc cruciale.

Pour que la plantation d’arbres ait vraiment du sens, il faut la penser intelligemment en amont. Ce qui signifie consulter les populations locales, choisir judicieusement les espèces, respecter les droits de propriété sur ces arbres, leurs fruits et la terre sur laquelle ils poussent.

Il s’agit aussi d’identifier des responsables pour l’entretien de ces nouvelles plantations. Pour les entreprises, il est donc question d’accompagner les communautés qui héritent de leurs plantations, et pas juste de verdir leur image.

Social implications of wildlife camera traps

Wildlife cameras very frequently take pictures of people, often unintentionally, with the images then being used for conservation management purposes. In many cases this seems to be causing harm to the people being photographed, which can create conflict and costs for the conservation projects. Chris Sandbrook, Rogelio Luque Lora, and Bill Adams have been doing research on the social implications of wildlife camera traps.

Their work has now been published in an article in The Conversation, and a peer reviewed paper in Conservation and Society. They conclude that camera traps have great potential as a conservation tool, but they need to be used carefully and sensitively to avoid causing these unintended negative consequences. They are hoping to stimulate a conversation about these issues within the conservation and political ecology communities, ideally leading to some agreed guidelines on the appropriate use of surveillance technology within our field.

Heterotopias and a serious joke at IHE Delft library

ENTITLE blog - a collaborative writing project on Political Ecology

by Cristóbal Bonelli

With the notion of heterotopia Foucault describes spaces that are somehow “different”, mirroring and yet distinguishing themselves from what is outside, like gardens, cemeteries, or ships. Heterotopias are places of imagination, escape, otherness and a microcosm of different environments. Cristobal Bonelli found his own heterotopia in the IHE library, during the presentation of the book “Water, Technology and the Nation-State”.

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Who is guarding whom?

By Mihnea Tanasescu

Reblogged from The Civil Animal

NZ treeI am currently in Aotearoa New Zealand for a three-month fellowship researching two legal persons: the river Whanganui, and the former national park and ancestral Tūhoe homeland, Te Urewera. These natural beings were recognized as persons in law, a move that has generated widespread international media coverage and fawning commentary. I will write in future posts about each of them in detail, as I learn more myself. For now, I wanted to reflect on an idea that is so widespread as to go unnoticed: that good environmentalism means humans have to become guardians of nature.

I started my immersion into the cases I am here to study with a brilliant book by Anne Salmond, the most celebrated New Zealand anthropologist, titled Tears of Rangi. Rangi in Maori cosmology is the sky-father that, after being violently separated from his union with Papa, the earth-mother, cries for her while she raises up her mists to meet him (his tears became freshwater bodies). This creation story recounts that the world started in unity, in the embrace of Rangi and Papa, and that its principle of reproduction is division, the separation of pairs. The accent does not fall on division as such, but rather on the relationships that are continuously formed between pairs (already intimated in the tears and the mists, the reaching across).

Maori philosophies develop as relational ones, where the identity of individuals is simply a knot in a series of relationships extending in space and time, forward and backwards. This is reflected in Maori art as much as cosmological stories and philosophies. Relationships with ancestors are powerfully important and, like in so many other philosophies worldwide, animals and plants, the land and the sea, can themselves be ancestors. This means that these natural entities can be entered into relations with, and human life is simply the travelling node where all sorts of life-forms interact. The sign of a good relation is reciprocity, the mutual exchange of gifts.

This kind of relational thinking is not alien to ‘western’ philosophies either. Salmond in her book shows how the very first Europeans to arrive in New Zealand were, in part, themselves steeped into relational Enlightenment science, though by far the dominant philosophy of the time (late 18thcentury) was the Great Chain of Being: the idea that the universe was ordered on a string of increasing (or decreasing, depending which way you looked) importance, with God on top and the rest of creation strung on hierarchically. The collision of these worlds, the Great Chain and the relational one of the Maori, is still productively shooting sparks today. Though we easily sneer at hierarchical thinking today, it is so insidiously embedded that it is far from extinct.

The legal personality that was granted to the Whanganui river and Te Urewera is but a node in a process of world-collision that began with Captain Cook, in 1769. Since then, the various Maori descent lines have lost the use of much of their ancestral land at the hands of European settlers. The Whanganui iwi, the tribes inhabiting the Whanganui lands, and the Tūhoe, the inhabitants of Te Urewera, sought to obtain ownership of their respective lands by challenging the Crown in court for having breached the founding treaty of New Zealand, the Treaty of Waitangi (signed, by many but not all chiefs, in 1840). The iwi (tribes) claimed that they had never given the Crown exclusive rights to their lands. Predictably, the NZ government resisted granting the iwi ownership and, instead, ownership was granted to the land itself: hence, the Whanganui river and Te Urewera are legal persons.

The question of course arises – and this is where the rubber hits the road – of who is to represent the legal person in the future. The NZ legal system does not allow for natural entities to speak on their own behalf, so evidently there needs to be some form of representation put in place. The legal persons therefore each come with a detailed plan of governance, about which I will write later, as they are both incredibly interesting. What I want to pause and think about now is the idea, often repeated in news coverage of these cases, that the iwi are the guardians of the legal persons. This idea is present in most commentary on indigenous relationships to the land, whether in Aotearoa or elsewhere.

Inasmuch as the lands that are now recognized by NZ law to be legal persons in their own right are to be represented by anyone, it seems right that these should be iwi members. But does this also make them guardians of these lands? In law, guardians usually act on behalf of subjects that for one reason or another (age, health, and so on) are not capable of taking care of their own business. And this is where the idea starts to fray, at its very base: isn’t nature the archetype of self-care? Particularly from the point of view of relational thinking, it is an odd thing to claim that nature is helpless.

The idea of guardianship is very seductive, being somewhat flattering, painting a picture of responsible humans taking care of the rest of the world. It is also, on this account, deeply steeped into Great Chain of Being thinking. How could humans take care of nature without having the knowledge and the power to do so, and therefore being raised above everything else? The point of Maori philosophies, as well as other indigenous ones, is precisely that we are not above the natural order, so in that sense guardianship or stewardship becomes a logical impossibility. In fact, humans are always in debt to natural beings, trying to assuage their power through behavioural tricks (prohibitions, offerings, and so on). We are likely to rediscover the awesome power that overwhelms human agency in a world of increasingly erratic climate.

Salmond notes that, in the past, kaitiakitanga (the Maori term usually translated as guardianship) used to be exercised by non-human taniwha (supernatural spirits), such as sharks or sting-rays, whereas now it is usually understood to be exercised by people. Human guardianship is in this sense an emptying out of a world that used to be populated by beings more powerful, and more knowledgeable, than ourselves. This kind of thinking is further propagated by the idea that we live in the Anthropocene – the human age. But guardianship in human terms and the human age are, in a sense, inimical to indigenous, relational philosophies. Ancestral traditions taught that it was nature that was the guardian of people, not the other way around. It is then at least ironic that the local iwi are portrayed as the guardians of their lands, now legal persons.

The language of the acts instituting the legal persons combines both indigenous and western conceptions, but ultimately sneaks hierarchy in through the idea of guardianship. However, this does not mean that natural entities are forever subjected to the benevolent human guardian. Tāmati Kruger, an important Tūhoe leader and chairman of the board tasked with governing Te Urewera, makes the following point: “we don’t need land management plans, we need people management plans”. Nature is the definition of self-so, the very principle of self-generation, and Maori philosophies are rooted in this universal truth. For example, the regeneration of nature is a feat that nature accomplishes itself, and we are not in a position to consider ourselves guardians of processes that are still fundamentally mysterious. Instead, we can be guardians of our own behavior (ideally speaking; there seem to be practical impediments to this).

The term for land in te reo, the Maori language, is whenua. The same word is used to designate the placenta, and in Maori tradition this was buried after birth, precisely to underline the connection between the new life and the land. As the etymology of whenua suggests, the land is that which nourishes and connects people to the greater body that makes them possible. To think of ourselves as guardians of the land is, in this sense, akin to thinking of the child as guardian of her mother.

Parallels between indigenous philosophies and the idea of guardianship are well-meaning, but ultimately wrong-headed. Maori philosophies challenge this easy identification, showing it to be a continuation of hierarchical thinking. The relational mode that is present in alternative ways of being and thinking is beautifully exemplified in whakapapa, or genealogy, the practice of reciting who you are by telling the audience who you are related to, including where you’re from (who the home river, or mountain, is). The natural entity here is not under the guardianship of the person, but exactly the other way around; the natural entity is what nestles the person and gives them meaning and identity. This relationship, much closer to ecological science as well as indigenous knowledge – much closer to relational ways of thinking that shun human hubris – is what we must find ways to express. Guardians of the anthropocene not only doesn’t come close to it, it points us in the wrong direction.

Open letter to the California Air Resources Board on their proposed new Tropical Forest Standard: please sign!

Dear friends and fellow scholars,

A few of us have drafted an open letter to the California Air Resources Board that we hope you consider signing. We’ve had a great initial response and hope to get many signatures by Nov. 11 and present the document at a pubic ARB session on Nov. 15-16. Here’s the story:

The ARB may soon approve yet another way for the state’s biggest greenhouse-gas emitters to buy their way out of their legal obligations by purchasing dubious offsets, this time in the global South. ARB’s proposed new Tropical Forest Standard would link California’s cap-and-trade program to subnational states in the forested tropics. This is a bad idea for reasons we have tried to summarize in the letter. It would set a terrible international precedent as California officials continue to promote the state’s climate policy as a model for the world.

Until now the ARB has mainly taken its cues from environmental economists, its own technical staff, big green NGOs, carefully vetted officials and indigenous spokespeople from Brazil and Mexico, and consultants with personal and career interests in carbon trading and forest conservation financed by offsets. The ARB board and staff seem unaware of the actual record and problems of REDD+ PES, and when told about this, respond that their proposed “jurisdictional REDD” would surmount such problems. Our letter voices widespread concerns about forest carbon offset programs shared by so many geographers and other researchers who are closer to understanding how these projects are working on the ground.

We three authors are approaching this from different perspectives but we think the case against this TFS initiative is very strong. We are not condemning REDD+, etc., nor offsets in general in the letter. We are stressing the ways that the TFS could implicate the state in harmful practices, would fail to achieve any net environmental gain, and fails to meet California’s legislated requirements.

Please sign if you agree, and circulate the letter to other scholars with academic credentials who have worked on REDD/PES, carbon trading/offsetting, tropical forests/conservation/development, etc. We will be adding more citations: suggestions appreciated.

** You can add your name to the letter at this link:


Here is a link to the letter (it’s also attached).

And here is information about the Tropical Forest Standard and how to submit individual letters to the ARB.  Do let us know if you have questions or comments.


Kathleen McAfee


“Radical Bricoleurs”: On Doing Science, Community Life, Activism and Bureaucracy in Mozambique

By Anselmo Matusse, University of Cape Town

One day I was walking with Mr. Angelo, 69 years old, a former Renamo soldier, demobilized in 1994, who is now a farmer and a hunter towards his rice farm in Nvava, which is located in the lands of former colonial tea plantations called Cha Tacuane in Nvava, Lugela district, Zambezia Province, Northern Mozambique. As we walk he tells me that this tea you see here (pointing at a tea plant) was planted in the colonial period; I used to work in this company. When I look around I can see that the land was once used for monocrops, but currently colonial tea plants as wells the local plants co-exist, constituting the present landscapes as both places of memory and engendering new knowledges. The picture I began to paint is one in which the debris of colonial, socialist, civil war, and present neoliberal endeavors are the building blocks from which the foundations of a deep present and visions of the future are built. This realization prompted me to consider “radical bricolage”[1] as a means of understanding these intersections of conservation, development and community life, taking into account the amalgamation of present, past, and visions of the future in Mozambique. The concept draws together Claude Levi-Strauss’s (1966) thinking about the “bricoleur” and Achille Mbembe’s notion of “radical uncertainty” (2011, 2017), to which I return below.

Read more on Engagement, where this article was originally published.“Radical Bricoleurs”: On Doing Science, Community Life, Activism and Bureaucracy in Mozambique