Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Food Security Issues in Kidal, Mali

The region of Kidal, Mali was originally the first research site of this grant. After a site visit and conversations with local officials there, I chose to shift the first research site to the regions of Gao and Ménaka, Mali. The change comes from the curfew that still exists in Kidal after a few skirmishes between the Malian military and a Touareg separatist group in northeastern Mali, and the restriction of mobility around the smaller communes of Kidal. The following notes are from my visits to the Kidal region and were shared with those in attendance at the 17th Sahel Workshop in Grève, Denmark, November 5th and 6th, 2006.

Food production has declined in Mali, once an exporter of food and now importing grains and other produce from neighboring countries. Literature since the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s has pointed towards a decline in herding and farming as livelihoods and more people shifting into wage labor activities. Recent studies, however, have suggested resurgence in people returning to the land as urban problems and insecurity in wage labor jobs, like mining, have had little appeal to some. Still, returning to farms, flocks and grasslands today is not without its difficulties. The ecology in some regions has altered due to the abandonment fields and pastures during droughts and civil conflicts, urbanization and the competition between urban consumption and local resource management, and also the establishment of natural reserves and parks has reduced the former commons, creating competition between various groups using this natural resource base.

Opinions vary on the definition of food security, but many agree that food production, distribution and markets, cultural and regional preferences and political stability carry great importance in food procurement for a region. Food availability [distribution and markets] is the focus of this paper. Other factors are not less important, they were not possible to investigate considering the time constraints. In terms of peoples’ responses to food scarcity, Africans had a range of strategies ranging from migrations to other regions, collection of wild foods and hunting to a reliance on social, economic and kinship relations between various groups such as the collection of tithes or debts. Investigating the changes in peoples’ responses to food shortage is important, not only to understand the community’s link with the other local communities and external agents involved in the region, but also to provide policy makers effective options to reduce vulnerability to famine and malnutrition.

Kidal is both a town and region in northeastern Mali that has been a challenge to integrate into the Malian state and aid during times of food shortages or political crises. After the rebellion in the 1990s and as part of negotiations that took place between the Bamako and rebel leaders, Kidal became the eighth region, equal and competing for national resources and financing with Mali’s other regions. One could argue at present that political stability in the region is the greatest factor contributing to alimentation but as mentioned before there was not enough time to effectively look at linkages between food security and political stability.

Certain markets and products fare better than others in Kidal. First and foremost, local markets bring dairy products, meat and forage for animals into the markets of Kidal. These products, for the most part are either equal or lower in cost than their counterparts in Gao or Bamako. Transportation costs are minimal if not non-existent for these products. The gardens in the southern part of town provide vegetables from January through March but often their production and seasonality is not satisfactory for local demand. To compensate, there is a weak national market where Bambara and Songhaï families import grains and vegetables from southern parts of Mali. Individuals as far as Sikasso travel back and forth to bring fruits and vegetables to this northern market.

The intraregional black market is a large provider of food and other products for Kidal. Canned goods, grains, bottled juices and water are much cheaper in neighboring Algeria and entrepreneurs both Malian and clandestine that have been deported [often Nigerian nationality] use their connections in Algeria to import non-perishable food and other products into the region. Vendors selling goods smuggled in from Algeria called their activities “les petites choses” but their contribution to food availability is certainly not small.

Some foods are exported from the region but overwhelmingly this is livestock because prices for animals are higher in Algeria and Niger compared to markets in Mali. Vegetables must be high in quality and appearance for regional traders to ship them off to higher-priced markets in southern Mali. Even dates which are produced in Kidal stay in the region as demand exceeds supply. To compensate for this demand, Algerian dates are found in the market more often than locally produced dates.

In conclusion, food availability and prices are relatively better here than in other parts of Mali. Exceptions to this generalization are fresh fruits, vegetables and grains as transportation increases costs and restrict the availability of these foods. Other exceptions involve periods of political crises where transportation of goods from Algeria is both difficult and dangerous. The prices of food goods increased during the rebellion and the recent skirmishes that took place last year in April. Markets fluctuate in their strength but community members and their ties to southern Mali bring in fresh produce from the south seasonally. More important, clandestine groups and locals with ties to Algeria bring in non perishable goods all year long, an essential for the region’s food security.

There are areas for further research here. Interviews with clandestine peoples and their contributions to the communities they now reside in holds promise in uncovering the trade networks and food availability in Kidal as well as other towns in the crossroads of illegal immigration, like Arlit, Niger, Tamanrasset, Algeria and Ghent, Libya. Research will not be easy as these groups have experienced incidents of violence, rape, torture, discrimination, robbery and other atrocities, sometimes at the hands of locals, other times at the hands of authorities, guides or their own kind. Yet understanding their role in these communities is crucial, both to repatriate those who wish to return home at some future point and to integrate those who have made the Saharan trading centre their home. Illegal immigration is detrimental and counter productive for both individuals and countries and must be ended at least for ethical reasons. But to push forward and repatriate people without understanding their contributions to the local community and ignore individual choice in remaining in the Saharan towns will only contribute to further hardship. This paper recommends academics and policy makers to learn more about these new merchants in the Saharan trade.