Desertification is a big word that I learned in that fancy private school I went to.
It means that the Sahara is growing. By some estimates, the sand is creeping southward by fifty kilometers every year. I don’t think anyone knows for sure whether it’s caused by global warming, or amplified by human activity. Some years some scientists say it’s getting better. That’s all subject to debate.
But among the locals, there is no such debate. They tell me that is that desertification is happening. They tell me that every year feels a little hotter than the last. They tell me that every year, the sky gives a little less rain, and the ground gives a little less food. The vegetation is thinning, and the desert continues to creep.
I live in a small town on a good road, not that far from Guinea, and not that far from Bamako. Bamako is a densely populated, highly underdeveloped capital city. In Bamako, there are banks and restaurants, air conditioning and power. But the vast majority of Bamakoans eat meals that have been cooked over fires. Fires that are made with wood. Wood that doesn't grow in Bamako.
In fact, that wood comes in from all over the region. It comes in big trucks that are loaded with thousands of sacks of charcoal. In Bamako, those sacks of charcoal are sold for a lot of money, and some even continue further north, deeper into the sand.
The other day, sitting at my bus stop with one of the candidates in the mayoral election (he lost), I watched as four men loaded one such truck until it was brimming with charcoal. I listened as the man-who-would-be-mayor told me how much he hated watching those trucks leave Narena. He estimates they go at a rate of five a day. At that rate, he calculates that Narena's way of life will be threatened within one generation.
A few weeks ago, there was an important meeting at the mayor's office. People came early and sat waiting for hours as parties from far-flung border villages trickled in. Representatives came from Guinea.
As is often the case, I was completely in the dark, and had to ask for an explanation. This is what I got:
Away from the road, nobody has bothered to mark the boundary between Mali and Guinea. Every village knows that it is in one country or the other, but the space between villages is a kind of no-man's land. Or, perhaps more appropriately, every-man's land.
In one such every-man's land, a small international incident has broken out. It's over wood. Men just like the ones who cut wood in Narena to sell in Bamako have been operating further south as well. Apparently, some have gone too far into every-man's land, and the small Guinean village next door has begun to push back.
By push back, I mean that they have taken prisoners and torched houses. Natural resources are serious business anywhere in the world, and this is no exception. The mayor's office staff tells me that similar circumstances sparked the war with Burkina Faso twenty years ago. Everyone takes this meeting seriously, and it is the first of many. Patrols are set up to try to keep the peace.
The man-who-would-be-mayor tells me that he doesn’t know what else to do.
The commune has issued ordinances against the cutting of wood destined for Bamako, but it is filled with legal and logistical holes. Besides, who’s going to enforce it? There is a tax on trucks of charcoal – a little over a hundred bucks each. My own back-of the-envelope guess says it needs to be ten times that to make any difference.
As I get ready to leave the bus stop, I realize that he isn't done talking. It's rare that someone who knows the history and complexities of a problem like this also has the time and the patience to explain it all to me. I let him finish.
"Sure," he says, "they make good money cutting all that wood and hauling it to Bamako. But most of them don't live here, and when the wood is gone, so are they. And my children will be left impoverished because of it."