Mali needs climate solutions, not more troops

The root of the conflict in Mali is climate change-related and it cannot be resolved without climate action.

A Fulani herder leads his livestock to graze in the fields between Sevare and Mopti in central Mali on March 18, 2021 [AFP/Michele Cattani]

On February 15, the five Sahel countries along with France held a “Sahel G5” summit to discuss the security situation in the region. The leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, and France agreed to step up counterterrorism efforts.

Yet again, the debate around how to reduce the continuing bloodshed in West Africa was framed militarily. The focus was on a possible French withdrawal and the need for replacement forces.

French President Emmanuel Macron was ultimately persuaded that the 5,000 French men and women deployed in the Sahel as part of Operation Barkhane should stay a little longer, until other countries can deploy troops to replace them.

It has been nine years since the war in Mali broke out, and eight since French forces intervened to support the Malian army. And yet the conflict is nowhere near a resolution today. To us, at International Alert, and many other organisations working on the ground in the Sahel region, it is clear that the solution to this conundrum cannot be solely a military one. Mali, its neighbours and the international community need to invest in a major peacebuilding campaign that focuses on the roots of the conflict, not on its consequences.

Intercommunal tensions

Northern Mali has suffered instability and conflict since the country gained its independence from France in 1960. In 2012, a year after the Libyan uprising and a NATO operation brought down the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, instability spilled over into Mali.

Small arms proliferation and the movement of Tuareg fighters from Libya to Mali fuelled a rebellion. While people in the north had had longstanding political grievances, their socioeconomic situation had been severely affected by water shortages and desertification due to climate change and other environmental factors.

Competition over ever-shrinking water resources and fertile land had fuelled tensions between different communities. That is why the Malian conflict cannot be seen only as the result of an Islamist force rebelling against the central government.

On March 23, 2019, in central Mali, some 160 civilians – mostly semi-nomadic herders of Fulani ethnicity – were killed, allegedly by Dogon communities, who are mostly farmers. The international community looked first to ethnic divisions and radicalisation to explain the attack. But the reality is that diminishing access to water and fertile land have long pitted herders against farmers.

This conflict is increasingly becoming a political one as well. Herder communities’ access to and control of land is decreasing and they are increasingly feeling that the government is taking no action to alleviate their problems. As a result, herders have come to perceive themselves as “victims” of partisan governance and consider taking up arms – which are now abundant in Mali – as the way to correct the injustices they face.

Climate change has fuelled tensions not only in the north and the centre, but also increasingly in the relatively more stable south. In recent years, the Sikasso region in southern Mali has also seen frequent incidents of violence between farmers, pastoralists and state employees tasked with forest protection over the use of land and natural resources.

The Inner Niger Delta, which stretches over central and southern Mali, has been particularly affected by climate change, as rainfall has diminished by 30 percent over the past 50 years and there has been a mean annual temperature increase of 0.8 degrees Celsius. The alternation of droughts and floods has diminished crop yields and affected herding and fishing.

According to recent estimates, if no action is taken, this situation could result in the loss of welfare ranging from $70 to $142m and an increase of those at risk of hunger from 44 percent to more than 70 percent of the Malian population.

Mali is not the only country severely affected by climate variability in the region and there is an increasing risk that the conflict raging within its borders can spill over to its neighbours. The disruption of weather patterns and the mismanaged human responses have created environmental degradation that has undermined the livelihoods of the whole Sahel region, which has been proclaimed “ground zero” of climate change because of its significant vulnerability to its effects.

Climate responses key to peace

On February 23, a week after the Sahel summit took place, Macron attended a UN Security Council meeting focused on climate security that stands to set the tone for multilateral talks in the year building to the COP26 conference in Glasgow. He chose this moment to propose a special envoy for climate security to member states, saying, “The fight against climate change and for the protection of the environment is a matter of peace and security.”

We cannot agree more. And Mali is a prime example why this statement is true. Macron, however, should act on his words and incorporate climate action into France’s response to the Sahel crisis.

He and the international community need to assist Sahelian governments in resource management as much as they have in maintaining security. The UNSC, and the UN in general, can support the “return of the state” to peripheral regions, not only through the deployment of peacekeepers, but also through enhancing welfare provision, good land governance, and justice system reforms that reinforce equitable access to water and land.

International support should also focus on young people. In Mali, and elsewhere in the region, the youth from communities that have not been engaged with are already involved in the acquisition and storage of weapons. The proliferation of small arms throughout northern and central Mali, compounded by smuggling, has promoted banditry in border areas already scarred by the conflict. Engaging the youth in climate change-related initiatives can provide them with alternative livelihoods which would certainly improve the security situation in the border regions and the country as a whole.

A managed transition away from military interventions needs to be internationally supported, locally owned and delivered through inclusive, informed politics. Peace for Malians can be achieved through creating platforms for dialogue between local communities on climate responses, not multilateral conversations on replacing one international battalion with another.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.