YOUWAROU, Mali (AlertNet) - Farmers in a fertile area of central Mali sustained by the Niger River are replanting forests that are dwindling due to a shortage of rain, hoping to protect the wildlife on which their incomes depend, including fish, birds and hippos.
After the rains start in late June, the Niger River inundates the Inner Niger Delta, a 30,000 square km wetland in central Mali’s semi-arid Sahel belt. The region, whose flood plains lie below sea level, is covered with floodwater from June to February, turning it into a network of ponds and lakes interspersed with forest.
The flood forests are a breeding ground for fish, which local people catch and sell in other parts of the country. Farmers also grow a natural fodder - the aquatic bourgou grass - which is used for cattle feed.
But the wetland region - home to one million people - has lost much of its forest cover in the last two decades mainly because of climate change, experts say.
“A steadfast rainfall shortage since the late 1980s is drying up the numerous ponds and reducing the size of the flooding zone where the forests exist,” explains Mory Diallo, a researcher working in the delta for Wetlands International, a Netherlands-based NGO.
By the end of the dry season in May, the flood forest of Akka Goun shrinks to a mere cluster of acacia albida, a drought-resistant tree native to the Sahel region. The cracked soil is peppered with shells deposited by Lake Debo, the wide lake that covers it in winter after the rains.
From March to May, this lake - 35 km long and 30 km wide during the flooding period - dries out, and only small fishing canoes can negotiate the Niger River.
Droughts struck the Inner Niger Delta in the late 1970s and early 1980s, destroying 27 forests on which local people’s lives depended, according to Hassane Kaya, a local agent for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Youwarou, a village in the delta.
PROTECTING BIRDS, FISH AND HIPPOS
In 1985, villagers and farmers started work to restore some of the region’s forests, with technical support from IUCN and Wetlands International.
“Seven ancient forests have been rebuilt in the inland Niger delta. And four of them are shelters for endangered aquatic animals, including hippos, manatees and some migratory birds,” says Kaya.
The ongoing programme to restore degraded forests and ponds is financed by international donors, including the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).
“We are helping farmers to recreate several forests in this region where rainfall shortages are affecting millions of farmers’ livelihoods, which depend on the flood forests,” explains Mamby Fofana, a climate change specialist at the Swedish embassy in Bamako.
Millions of migratory birds spend the winter in the wetland, maintaining the local ecosystem. The birds’ excrement enriches the flood forest, where fish feed and reproduce. This process is vital to local livelihoods because fishing is the main source of income. Fishermen even sell some of their catch as far afield as neighbouring Burkina Faso.
But climate change threatens to stop birds passing through the delta because it is harming their habitat. “Some European migratory birds no longer come into the delta. For instance the white storks - who can’t find many giant trees on which they can nest - spend winter in Spain, Morocco or Mauritania,” says Wetland International’s Diallo.
In 1985, IUCN also helped villagers set up local conventions to protect the delta’s forests.
Kola Tienta, a Youwarou representative on the environment management committee grouping the villages surrounding the Akka Goun forest, patrols every day to check that all is in order.
“I have been told by a fisherman that a herder’s cows destroyed some acacia trees and I’m here to witness these damages firsthand,” says Tienta.
“When any member of the committee sees someone doing something that’s forbidden, or if another person reports wrongdoing regarding the natural resources, we inform the nature conservation agents. The sea cows and the hippos living in the flooding forest of Akka Goun are protected by the local convention.”
CARBON CREDITS AND GUM
In Mali, people reforest to protect environment. But sometimes they are also looking for additional income.
In the western arid zone of Nara, outside the delta, an initiative has been underway since 2007 to replant 10,000 hectares of acacia senegal. The project is a partnership between local communities, the World Bank and Déguessi Vert, a Malian agro-industrial company.
The new trees will help reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions by sequestering 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2012, and over 500,000 tonnes by 2017.
The aim is for the plantations to qualify next year for the U.N. Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which awards credits to projects in developing countries that limit emissions. The "carbon credits" are purchased by polluters in rich nations to meet their commitments to reduce emissions, or by investors.
The village of Dialoubé boasts a 50-hectare plantation, established in 2007 as part of the Nara plantation project, and four other surrounding villages have 6,000 hectares of acacia.
The Dialoubé plantation has already started generating money for local farmers, and is providing permanent employment for some.
In addition, during the busy period in April and May, all villagers find work planting young trees in mud in small pots. "Every year I can earn around 6,000 francs (about $10) per day filling the pots," says Dialoubé resident Amadou Cissé.
Locals use the money they earn to buy extra food, as their harvests are often poor due to lack of rain. But it will take time before the plantations generate enough revenue for larger investments, such as building village schools and health centres.
Further down the line, the project also aims to boost local inhabitants’ income through harvesting gum arabic (gum acacia), a natural gum from acacia trees used by international food companies as a stabiliser in products like sweets and soft drink syrups.
Soumaila T. Diarra is a freelance journalist based in Bamako with an interest in environmental issues.