Monday, April 4

Ko Sira: The road to the river ends in unsustainable mass migrations without more intelligent ways to stay in place

The people in the United States, France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Turkey who set out to destroy Syria are not only the worst examples of humanity; they are also so far behind the realities of the present era they're almost primitives except for their sophistication at protecting their positions in government. 

But the Russian government under the leadership of Vladimir Putin has been working toward creating a sustainable model of society, one that takes the present era into account. If this is news to you, it's been hidden by a wall of anti-Russian propaganda. The model could be called "Stay in Place."  

In 2007 the Israeli-American counterterrorism specialist Youssef Bodansky strove to explain the early stage of the model in a book that was mostly about Chechyna and the terrorist threat from that region. Yet with this model the Russians were converging with a fledgling movement among disaster-relief experts and humanitarian workers who mobilize to help victims of natural and manmade disasters stay in place rather than flee their home regions.

(The movement and the model are in evidence in Russia's military strategy in Syria. So for readers who thought it was hyperbole when I wrote that civilization would stand or fall in Syria, I was simply referring to what's behind the propaganda wall.)     

To get you in the ballpark, which is by no means limited to the situation in the world's poorest countries, here are the opening passages from IRIN's April 2012 report (also available in French) Beyond the drought - “Families will disappear:
Kayes, Mali
“It was the drought that made people move away from here,” Ousmane Touré said in Kayes, 450km northwest of Bamako, the capital of Mali, and a 10-hour bus ride across the scorched scrubland of the western Sahel.
“There had been a tradition of emigration, but it was when the harvests failed in the 1970s that we saw a real surge in emigration. There was simply not enough to eat, so people took off for France, Germany and the United States. They knew it was only the way of feeding their families back home in Kayes. The same thing is happening this year.”
Touré heads the Association of Returning Migrants of Kayes (AMRK), a welfare organization that tries to provide short-term shelter and counselling to people coming back to this part of the country. The returnees, particularly those from the ethnic Soninké community, which spreads across Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, have played a major role in developing western Mali through their remittances and other cash transfers, giving it a stronger identity and economic base. Many of them are now deportees who have fallen foul of immigration restrictions in France and other countries.
“The emigrants have been well-organized and have always ensured money gets channelled back, building health centres, schools, even roads,” said Touré, but the economic crisis in Europe and tighter immigration controls are having a serious knock-on effect, and impoverished villages can no longer count on the same level of support."
As we now know the migrations from Mali in 2012 were soon to run into mass migrations from several other parts of the world, and the looming threat is that these are unsustainable in the West as they continue to grow.

Fast forward to an April 2015 Reuters report, Drought, expanding deserts and 'food for jihad' drive Mali's conflict. Just as the West has long used food aid to help promote its views, so the Salafists are aiming their message at local rebellions and tribal leaders by delivering food aid to regions that fall between the cracks of increasingly beleaguered Western and UN-based food delivery programs.

The bottom line for these competing world views and the food aid that accompanies them was spelled out in the Reuters report, written by Chris Arsenault:
Mali's average rainfall has dropped by 30 percent since 1998 with droughts becoming longer and more frequent, according to a 2013 study by the U.S. army's Strategic Studies Institute.
As a consequence, hunger is a chronic problem in the West African country with more than 1.8 million people, including 660,000 children, in need of food aid.
But the situation is worse in the north, which was briefly seized in 2012 by Tuareg separatists allied with Islamic militants until a French-led military operation scattered them.
Here, some 270,000 people face starvation, according to figures from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
For generations, people from Menaka have wandered the land with their cows and goats in search of water and grass for grazing. Now, even this is under threat, Majga said.
The Sahara desert is expanding southward at a rate of 48 kms (30 miles) a year, forcing whole communities to migrate and pushing them on to land occupied by other groups, researchers said in a 2011 study.
Herders from other regions, and even neighboring countries such as Algeria and Niger, are moving onto territory that Majga's mostly Tuareg community uses for grazing.
"This will destroy the land even more," he said, fearing inter-communal conflicts.
Experts have long warned of the risk that climate change would worsen conflict in many of the world's poorest regions as different groups struggling to cope with poor rains and growing desertification take up arms to fight over scarce resources.
Last year, the Brookings Institute published a study showing that the frequency of cross-border violence grows by four percent, while inter group violence - the kind seen in Mali - rises 14 percent for each percentage change in average temperature and rainfall.
Pittsburg State University professor Steve Harmon said water shortages linked to global warming is one of the factors fuelling the latest Tuareg revolt in a country that has had four rebellions since winning independence from France in 1960.
"The droughts of the 1970s and 1980s in the Sahel were kind of the canary in the coal mine for climate change (causing violence)," Harmon said in an interview.
The droughts decimated Tuareg animal herds, the main source of wealth and sustenance for the nomadic community.
After losing their livelihoods as the climate became more erratic, many Tuareg fled to neighboring Libya, often serving in the security forces of ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Following Gaddafi's death in 2011, many Tuareg returned home and launched their latest uprising.
"The current crisis ... coincided with a period of drought and famine," Dona Stewart, a former U.S. military analyst, said in an interview.
"Environmental issues certainly can exacerbate the economic and political drivers of conflict," she said, adding that it was impossible to draw a direct causal link between climate change and ongoing violence.
The links between climate change, violence and basic human needs are not lost on Malian government officials.
"In the north there is such poverty, the environment is so tough, that when the jihadists come they find it easy to get followers," said Paul Coulibaly, a senior adviser to Mali's agriculture ministry, said in an interview in his air conditioned office in Bamako.
"Even if (fighters) don't bring money -- just food -- they will find allies if they can feed people," Coulibaly said.
Chief Majga, however, does not believe the government really understands the problems his community face. Echoing one of the major grievances of the Tuareg separatists, he said the Bamako government had neglected the region and was responsible for its poverty.
"The government hasn't done anything," Majga said.
Officials back in the capital said action was being taken to address some of the problems caused by climate change, pointing to new irrigation efforts and other plans to offset a warming planet.
The government didn't do anything for years because there was no pressure on it to take action. Periodic mass migrations from Mali to richer countries coupled with the remittances system made it easy for the government to stave off critical reforms. It was only when the hopelessly outdated system crashed from over-use that officials began to wake up -- and in many cases, as in Mali, at the literal point of a gun.  

Multiply Mali's government by about 100 others that have been doing the same -- depending on migrations and remittances; add governments overwhelmed by immigrants and strains on their own nations' resources, and there you have an accurate portrait of humanity as it is today.

Against this is a poorly-understood new model of society that is still being worked out in ad hoc fashion.

All this is a far cry from Malian singer Oumou Sangaré's delightful Ko Sira ("Road to the River"). The 1993 video of the song (unfortunately no longer available at YouTube) shows Oumou and other women in a lush region of rural Mali singing as they take their laundry to a river to wash it. That was the reality in that part of the world for many thousands of years. For many Malians, this is the reality today:

(top photo from IRIN, bottom one from the Reuters report)

"We didn’t have droughts like we get now"

I'll give the last words to IRIN:

... The events in the capital and the north have overshadowed the food crisis in the west. “A lot of things have been put on standby,” said Abdoulaye Samoura, advocacy officer for NGO Oxfam. “There have been serious delays in getting food distributed.” The dramatic price hikes at local markets in January and February have eased off, but there is no reason for complacency.
“What do you do when there is no food and you have to take care of five, 10, 20 people?” Touré asked. The answer is an exodus of men to Bamako, or across the border into Senegal, or to the gold-mining areas 75km to the south.

Mariam Cissoko, who heads the women’s section of the Association des Organisations Professionnelles Paysannes - Association of Professional Peasant Farmers (AOPP) - in Kayes, confirms that 2012 has been markedly worse. “It rained for only month of the usual three (in 2011) and that has meant drought and everything that comes with it,” she said.

“For us, the Bambara people, we don’t have the same tradition of emigration as the Soninké. We are agro-pastoralists. If you work the land, you will also have some livestock. But there is a strong spirit of solidarity here. In normal times, if you have something in reserve, you will give to those who don’t. But times like these, people just don’t have anything to spare.”

The priorities are stark. “Feed us and feed our animals,” stressed Cissoko. “If NGOs come and talk to us about education, that is all well and good, but we need food first. Without that, everything falls to pieces. People will get sick. Children won’t go to school. Men may be able to take off and look for opportunities elsewhere, but women and children are stuck where they are.”
Market gardening is increasingly important to boost food security

Kayes has been described as the second hottest place in Africa after Djibouti. “I grew up here and I remember an abundance of corn. We didn’t have droughts like we get now,” Cissoko told IRIN. “In the hottest months, the temperature normally goes to 42 or 43 degrees Celsius, but last year it was 47 or 48 at times, in the shade. The desert is advancing and the climatic changes are here for everyone to see. It has all come progressively.”

Food aid from the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and others may ease the problem, but Cissoko says rural communities in the Kayes region are exhausted by the cycle of drought and dependency. They need long-term practical help as they confront shrinking pasture and ongoing food deficits.

“We need proper cereal banks in villages; we need irrigation systems that protect agriculture; we need a credit system that can work, where people can afford the interest rates,” she told IRIN.

Kayes town lies on the banks of the Senegal River. In stark contrast to the dominating barrenness of the western Sahel, the riverbanks are studded with neatly tended plots yielding tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and other crops. This is all part of the maraîchage, or market gardening, that provides women in particular with a livelihood. “When I was a child, people said: ‘You will never get to plant fruit and vegetables here,’” but they were wrong. That was forty years ago. It began timidly, but the gardening has really picked up.”

But Cissoko acknowledges that cereal production is critical, and Ousmane Touré is equally blunt in demanding that the state and its international partners step up their efforts to help Kayes cope with the food deficits and the devastating drought. “What do you do when there is no food?” he asked. “People will not stay here. Families will disappear.”


Photo of riverbank garden: Chris Simpson for IRIN


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