Bamako — Escalating conflict with Islamic militants in Mali is leading to the suspension of development and aid programmes in the country, threatening efforts to deal with climate change, hunger and other problems, aid and development workers say.
In the central city of Segou, Demba Cisse, a representative of the aid group Afrique Verte, said the conflict had forced the group to halt a project designed to improve farmers' cereal crop yields.
The France-based group helps Malian farmers use new seeds adapted to the climate in different parts of the country. "On the one hand it allows the farmers to get certified seeds adapted to each agro-ecological area of the country. On the other, it helps them to change their way (of farming) to prevent and manage the food crises linked to droughts," Cisse said.
"The system of improved seed distribution we established helps farmers to cope with climate change," he said.
The project began in 2007 with about 30 seed banks in villages around the central city of Douentza. These were community stores managed by local people, giving the villages' farmers access to 100 tonnes of improved seeds.
The experiment, funded by international donors, was judged a success and expanded to other parts of the country.
But it halted abruptly when President Amadou Toumani Toure was overthrown by a military coup in March last year. Under international pressure, the coup leader handed power to an interim civilian president last May, but insurgents took advantage of the situation to overrun the north of the country and, more recently, begin advancing south towards the capital.
The insurgents - now in the process of being pushed back - at one point had taken major northern towns like Gao and Timbuktu, and still hold parts of Kidal. In Douentza, the insurgents, a loose alliance of al Qaeda-linked Islamists and separatist Tuaregs, imposed a strict form of Sharia law on local people.
Many foreign aid and development groups have suspended their aid to Mali because of the political situation and the lack of security.
NO WORK 'UNTIL THE CONFLICT IS OVER'
"All the development projects in Mali are affected by the current conflict. The partners won't be back until the conflict is over", predicted Boubacar Sidiki Dembele, a climate change expert who works with the Climate Change Adaptation Fund Board.
The board rejected an $8 million dollar project proposed by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in June last year, aimed at supporting efforts to adapt to climate change in the northern regions of Mopti and Timbuktu.
Announcing the rejection on its web site, the board suggested one of the reasons for its rejection was that "the current political and security issues within the country, and more specifically in the region of Timbuktu, are a major risk to the inception and implementation of the program."
Earlier this month, the Sahel country's former colonial power, France, responded to a Malian request for military help, sending aircraft to attack insurgents in the centre and north, and following this with a northward drive by French and Malian troops that enabled them to recapture an increasing area of the north of the country.
Douentza was declared free of insurgents on Jan. 22, but more than 100 seed stores in villages around the town were affected by the fighting, hindering progress in the struggle to produce food at a time of increasingly frequent drought, Afrique Verte's Cisse said.
Dembele was not optimistic about the prospects of a speedy return to peace and the rule of law in Mali.
"The next meeting of the (Climate Change Adaptation Fund) Board is due in April but I'm not sure if we'll be able to finish this conflict and secure the country in three months," he said.
The insurgency has led more than 200,000 Malians to leave their homes, fearing violence and Islamist rule. Afrique Verte and other aid groups have been providing some of them with food.
The French and Malian advance has met little resistance but it is not clear whether the insurgents will regroup in the Ifoghas mountain range north of Kidal, analysts said.
Soumaila T. Diarra is a freelance journalist based in Bamako with an interest in environmental issues.