Environmental Resilience as Stabilisation in Central Mali


Since 2012, Mali has struggled with widespread insecurity and violence, as well as limited state control beyond the capital of Bamako.

While the instability began with a rebellion by ethnic Tuareg in the north, it has increasingly been driven by Islamic extremist groups who have launched indiscriminate attacks on civilians as well as international and state security forces. The conflict has spread to the central region and, due to the vacuum created by a lack of state authority, jihadist transnational and national non-state actors, such as Al-Qaida in the Islamic Magrheb (AQIM), have been able to pursue power.

However, the nature of the conflict in central Mali has several dimensions. Push factors include structural factors, such as high levels of youth unemployment and poverty, which makes the pay that terrorist organisations offer seem appealing, thereby creating a ‘push-pull’ effect. While an oft-mentioned element is the ‘ethnic’ hostility between local groups – notably the Fulani, Dogon and Tuareg – other factors include resource scarcity and competition as well as an absence of the state and its basic services. Furthermore, Central Mali is characterised by an arid environment which creates several livelihood challenges for the local population in terms of soil erosion, drought, and inadequate supplies of potable water. The populations in these areas include herders and farmers, who from time to time disagree on the rights over the limited resources, thereby sparking further tensions. Combined with high population growth rates and climate change, competition over the limited resources is only likely to increase further.

Macro-level solutions: International and national security responses

At the international, regional and national level, responses have largely focused on military solutions. After presidential elections in July 2013, around 12,000 (which has later increased to approximately 15,000) peacekeepers were deployed under the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali, also commonly referred to as MINUSMA, to help the government reassert its authority and assist peace processes. Due to the risk of attacks from the armed groups operating across Mali, the mission has become one of the most dangerous in UN history. Success has been limited, and the mission has struggled to provide sufficient protection to civilians. Simultaneously, the French-led Operation Barkhane is conducting counter-terrorism operations, while the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM Mali) is a multilateral mission engaged in training of the Malian Armed Forces. The Government of Mali has, with the support of the European Union, also launched an integrated security strategy under the name “Plan de Sécurisation Intégrée des Ré­gions du Centre” (PSIRC) in 2017, which has so far failed to produce significant tangible results. While many Western states are engaged in Mali and the Sahel via security and/or aid programmes, stability has not improved.

Micro-level solutions: Local ownership and socio-economic development

While purebred security initiatives at the macro level have proven broadly ineffective, responses at the community level that have focused on local ownership, socio-economic development, and resource management have shown tremendous resilience and effect. The Dragonfly is cooperating with one such initiative to expand its reach. The Mali Elephant Project, established in 2007 and run by Dr Susan Canney (under the WILD Foundation and the International Conservation Fund of Canada), began by seeking to protect the remaining population of desert elephants in the Gourma region of Central Mali but soon realised that this required engaging the local people. The conservation model fosters local ownership and governance to deliver socio-economic development through dialogue. Local communities, in combination with local government, if present, are empowered to work together to develop resource management systems that protect the resources on which their livelihoods depend; halt environmental degradation; and restore elephant habitat – thereby preventing human-elephant conflict and creating environmental resilience. Crucially, these systems are based on traditional structures but encompass all ethnicities sharing a resource base. By benefitting from the presence of the elephants, the result not only acts to prevent the poaching that some locals have pursued as a means of creating a livelihood but also establishes a sustainable resource synergy between elephants and humans, and among communities.

Local means of subsistence require healthy ecosystems, and the increase in resources available enables small-scale sustainable livelihoods projects. In practice, the project works with groups to devise small projects, such as the sustainable harvesting/re-planting of useful plants such as Acacia seyal (Gum Arabic) and Vetiver, livestock fattening schemes, the sustainable harvest and sale of forage, medicines and fruits, or the setting up of small businesses. The groups or individuals receive small start-up grants and any training (related to technical aspects or bookkeeping). Over a short time period of time, the tangible benefits mean the projects become self-sustainable.

Furthermore, young people are key to these systems. These ‘eco-guards’ are elected by the community and tasked with several responsibilities ranging from patrols to ensure that the rules of resource management are being respected, to tree planting, fire-break construction, fence construction and transportation of materials. As well as earning a cash income, which provides an alternative from joining a violent non-state actor organisation, the occupation also carries considerable respect within the local community. In addressing the underlying drivers of conflict, the efforts to create environmental resilience through small-scale socio-economic development are highly relevant to stabilisation and countering violent extremism. As the access to resources is improved, and systems are established that incentivise communities to cooperate rather than compete, resources become more plentiful; social cohesion is promoted; and the economic incentive to join jihadist groups is removed.

While protecting the habitat of the desert elephants in the case of the Mali Elephant Project has served as the unifying factor to bring communities together; environmental protection in itself can have a similar effect because it brings direct and tangible benefit and enables local people to regain some control, and because the local communities have a strong desire to preserve and protect the environment on which they largely depend. For this reason, Dragonfly considers this an innovative, sustainable and locally-owned way of promoting stabilisation, and is working with the Mali Elephant Project to grow this project horizontally into other parts of Central Mali to promote peace, socio-economic development, and to reduce the recruitment to jihadist groups.

Dragonfly’s Government Services practice conceptualises and implements government-sponsored projects in challenging environments around the world, particularly Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

TEDx Talk on the MEP available here:

Three minute animation available here:

Image: Mali Elephant Project, Copyright: WILD Foundation

share this article

Be the first to receive our articles, news and insight on global risk, industry trends and what's new at Dragonfly

Subscribe for updates