Livestock farming is one of the main sources of income for people in central and northern Mali. However, the ongoing armed conflict and the growing impact of climate change are hampering the efforts of herders to keep their animals alive and healthy.
Under a makeshift tent that barely shields him from the sun, Arrab Ag Yehia, a livestock farmer and manager of a site for displaced people near Gao, talks about the future with a sense of trepidation. "Everyone here is a livestock farmer, it is an ancestral practice. But I don't know if we will still be doing this job in ten years' time," he says.
Today, communities like Arrab's are feeling the full impact of climate change. Increasingly rare periods of rainfall are followed by sudden, violent flooding. Temperatures are rising to unprecedented levels, giving rise to long, intense and recurrent droughts that have blighted the area since 2010 (in 2015, 2016 and 2021).
In Mali, farmers move their livestock mainly along north-south droving routes. However, some head for specific locations, such as the inner Niger delta or the Adrar des Ifoghas. This practice allows livestock farmers, as well as those who grow crops in addition to raising cattle, to cope with variable climate conditions, find fallback options in case of drought, and access markets.
However, due to insufficient rainfall, pastures and arable land are disappearing throughout the Sahel region at an increasing pace.
Inflation and food security
As available arable land shrinks in certain regions, foodstuffs such as millet and sorghum become scarcer and their prices soar. In order to eat, farmers need to sell more animals; as a result, their herds are shrinking. The animals are underfed and more susceptible to disease. In this increasingly insecure environment, veterinary services are struggling.
Oumar Ballo, a veterinarian working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Mali, explains: "The price of livestock feed has also risen. The animals no longer have enough food, especially during the lean season." Livestock farming is increasingly under threat in Mali, despite the country being one of the largest producers of livestock in West Africa. "In terms of food security, it's definitely worrying," he adds.
Arrab and his community of livestock farmers have been searching for decades for the pastures they need to keep their cattle alive. They moved to Burkina Faso in the 1990s, hoping to find a better life. Due to food insecurity and the consequences of climate change, they were forced to return to Mali in 2019.
If we don't go back to livestock farming, we will have to do something else in order to live with dignity
They are surviving as best they can in the Liptako-Gourma region, on the Malian side of the border, with the few animals they have left. The security situation is deteriorating rapidly.
"We were never attacked ourselves, but there were clashes in villages close to ours. We were living in fear. We chose to move closer to the town of Gao. We left in haste, leaving everything behind: our belongings and the few animals we had left," explains Arrab.
The drovers' routes through the cross-border region of Liptako-Gourma are particularly dangerous for livestock farmers, who risk their animals being stolen.
What does the future hold?
Today, Arrab lives in a makeshift camp and no longer has a herd. He and others in the same unfortunate situation now depend on humanitarian aid and the generosity of a few neighbours, who sometimes give them bags of rice. This is far from enough, however. He says: "I have to take care of the people in my community, even when I have nothing. I have got into debt so they have food to eat."
Many livestock farmers have to take on odd jobs for their hosts. Some of the farmers who have lost most or all of their livestock, now look after other people's herds. The less lucky ones have fallen into debt with local traders.
"We are aware that humanitarian aid cannot last a lifetime. If we don't go back to livestock farming, we will have to do something else in order to live with dignity. As things stand, I don't know if I'm going to be able to put food on the table when I get home," says Arrab with a sigh.
In Mali, the ICRC has vaccinated millions of animals
To combat food insecurity, we vaccinated -- in partnership with the Malian Ministry of Rural Development -- more than four million animals of all species between November 2022 and April 2023, benefiting 138,702 families.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).