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Mali is no longer in the headlines but that does not mean that everything is back to normal! (1)

The Gourma region of central Mali –  home to the desert elephants and many small human communities – is contained on three sides by the great bend in the Niger river, and is starting the difficult task of rebuilding and reintegrating following the trauma of war.

These conditions prompted a national conference on reconciliation, facilitated by the Mali Elephant Project’s local team, the recommendations of which were announced by our team at a press conference in Mali during the week of 6 July.  One of the main preoccupations of the journalists at the press conference was whether the elephants were factors in community reconciliation, and what mechanisms there might be for involving communities in the process of reconciliation. Elephants and the local people both require a healthy, productive and diverse ecosystem.

Map of elephant range

One of the biggest impacts of the jihadist war and the earlier Tuareg rebellion has been the social wounds caused by different survival strategies adopted by specific individuals that  re-awoke and magnifed old social tensions – plus  created new ones. These different survival strategies adopted by locally influential people create negative conditions in their area and in how their communities and socio-ethnic groups are perceived by others.

This situation is exacerbated by the residual insecurity in the region, largely due to banditry perpetrated by those who joined the armed groups and who are reluctant to return to their communities for fear of retribution. As a result, displaced people are reluctant to return to their original communities.

Firebreak team

Our work with the communities demonstrated clearly that the weakening of social bonds poses a threat to the environment, because the sustainable management of natural resources requires communities to work together peaceably for their common interest of preventing resource degradation and destruction. Further, our work conclusively showed that natural resource management is an excellent way to bring communities together to help heal these wounds.

For example, the project strategies confirmed  that the teamwork required to build fire-breaks around the pasture reserves – the existence of which are a key factor in meeting the needs of the communities so they can stay out of the elephant migration route — has  re-established and strengthened social relations. Days spent working together, sharing meals, and evenings around a fire, promote the sharing of experience and mutual understanding, and the realisation that the actions of a few do not mean that the whole community or clan need be tarred with the same brush.

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Other questions at the press conference centred around how we arrived at the conclusions. A survey of the population had helped us identify 8 categories of people according to their survival strategy. Each of these require different approaches for their reintegration, and this formed the basis of a national workshop bringing high-level government in dialogue with community representatives to chart the way forward.

We are now pleased to launch the final paper. To assure success in the critically important post-conflict reconciliation, the first two main conclusions are:

  • Post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction must involve local communities from the start
  • Repairing the social fabric is a prerequisite for ensuring the social, economic and environmental sustainability of reconstruction initiatives in the Gourma region of Mali

Background: Local people are familiar with the pre-conflict situation and can help to ensure that compensation is fair; minimise the risk of aid exacerbating social divisions; and minimise the risk of aid falling into the wrong hands.

They can help determine the needs for reintegrating displaced people, particularly important as young men who are unable to return to their communities risk radicalisation and/or engaging in criminal activity.

They know who has committed what crimes and can help the process of justice. They also know who has arms and can help recover them.

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The third conclusion, as suggested earlier, is that:

  • Social resilience and environmental resilience are tightly linked, and resilience is key to surviving change and disturbance.

Background:  Local livelihoods demand healthy ecosystems, and the availability of natural resources; while community cohesion is necessary to avoid overexploitation. Development which places an added burden on the environment (such as new settlements) or on social relations (such as new water-points) must be avoided.

Otherwise, the management of reconstruction, the return of refugees, and development, risks reigniting tensions and sowing the seeds of future social and environmental problems which would be difficult to control.

These conclusions provided the basis for a phased action plan of concrete activities. We’ll report further on their application in the coming months.

The WILD Foundation and the International Conservation Fund of Canada wish to thank the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative for its support of this initiative.

(1) A good summary of the current situation can be found in a recent piece by Simon Allison

> Learn more about the Mali Elephant Project

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