Bamako — The recent conflict in northern Mali, where the situation remains volatile, has left many livestock herders in fear of losing millions of cattle, sheep and goats at a time when they were already struggling to find enough pasture for their animals due to drought.
Since the spring of 2012, violence between Islamist groups who grabbed much of the north from Tuareg nomads, and the army, supported by foreign troops for the past two months, has disturbed the West African nation's traditional grazing system, in which herders migrate according to the seasons.
Cattle-rearing is at risk from the ongoing France-backed operation to flush out the defeated Islamists, now hiding out in the northern mountains, and the aftermath of the insurgency, according to Rene Alfonse, leader of a federation of several herders' associations. Malian herders own around 9 million cows and 32 million small animals like sheep and goats, he noted.
"About 50 percent of Malian cattle are under threat of being destroyed," Alfonse said, explaining that the violence has made it harder to access grazing land and vaccinations to stop animals falling sick.
The livestock sector is important for Mali's economy, providing the third-largest source of exports after gold and cotton, and accounting for 14 percent of the country's gross domestic product.
Alfonse said the past 10 months have been tough for Mali's herders. Some have moved into neighbouring countries, including Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, to escape the fighting.
The Sahel region of West Africa has also been grappling with the consequences of drought caused by poor rains about a year ago. That has made farmers reluctant to accept Malian herders moving across borders and onto their lands.
"The severe food crisis led the population in other places to think that the herders' presence is a big threat to their crop fields, which means a danger to the food security of the areas where they want to graze their cattle," Alfonse said.
Another problem for Malian herders who have crossed the border is that they are considered refugees. Their status as refugees obliges them to stay in the same place, which they are not used to as nomadic people.
INSECURITY DISRUPTS PROJECTS
Inside Mali too, livestock keepers and their animals are suffering because of the war, said Sekou Barry, a Fulani herder from Youwarou, a city in the central region of Mopti. "We are obliged to go and graze our cattle in regions we're not used to going to. We don't have relationships with the people of all these regions," said Barry, who headed south to the adjoining region of Segou.
A large proportion of Malian cattle usually spend the dry season, from December to June, in the inland delta of the Niger River, which is an immense plain with interconnecting small rivers and ponds. The region also has several lakes, which dry out every year, uncovering green landscapes of bourgou, an indigenous natural grass used as fodder.
Herders move out of the region when the rains start, spending the rainy season in the Seno plain away from the annual floods. But last year, Barry was unable to leave. "The conflict obliged us to stay around the villages not far from the flooding areas. But now it is the right time to be there, I finally fled, as the conflict got worse last month," he said.
The conflict is also expected to delay projects to boost climate resilience, which had been benefiting the country's herders.
For example, the Programme of Rural Investment and Development for the Northern Regions of Mali (PIDRN), managed by the government and financed by international donors, has been suspended because of poor security.
According to Abdel Kader Djenepo of the PIDRN, cattle-rearing is the main economic activity for northern Mali's inhabitants. "The important potential of pastures available in the regions of Timbuktu and Gao attract every year cattle from many parts of the (central) Mopti region and from neighbouring countries," he said.
A 2012 report from the PIDRN states that the Gao and Timbuktu regions are home to 19 percent of Mali's cows, 33 percent of its sheep, 34 percent of goats and 44 percent of camels.
The PIDRN aims to reduce the impact of climate change on cattle-rearing in the region, which is known for its rich pastures. But its agents were forced to leave northern cities when the Islamists took over, as the rebels targeted government representatives and aid workers, Djenepo said.
This week, France's development minister said donors need to pour aid into Mali over the next six months to rebuild the strife-torn north and stop defeated militants taking advantage of the chaos to return.
CLIMATE IMPACTS ON FODDER
Before conflict interrupted the normal migration pattern of the region's herders, bourgou pastures were already suffering a lot from drought. The PIDRN report says serial droughts and the negative impacts of climate change over the past two decades have destroyed much of the area's original bourgou plants. "This has caused disturbance to cattle breeding systems and an important loss of cattle," it adds.
Since the 1980s, local and international aid groups have worked to restore the natural meadows, hoping to ease the fodder shortages induced by shifting climate patterns. But due to the recent conflict, many have had to leave the region, halting their efforts at least temporarily.
The immediate impact of the conflict and the more gradual effects of climate change pose serious threats to the herders' livelihoods, but many feel they have been left to cope on their own.
Assistance with fodder and medication, distributed by the government and aid agencies, has reached only a small number of herders, they say.
"No one helped me. I didn't have any support from the government and nobody told me about the possibility to get help," said Fulani herdsman Barry.
Soumaila T. Diarra is a freelance journalist based in Bamako with an interest in environmental issues.