75% of Mali’s population are farmers, but rich, land-hungry nations like China and Saudi Arabia are leasing Mali’s land in order to turn large areas into agribusiness farms. Many Malian peasants do not welcome these efforts, seeing them as yet another manifestation of imperialism. As Mali experiences a military coup, the developers are scared off – but can Mali’s farmers combat food shortages and escape poverty on their own terms?
“You try to sell me happiness but I say, “No.” You offer it again and I say “No.” A third time you come back. Why not do it where you live? In fact, you’re offering me something that will make you happy, not me. That’s a proverb.” Kassoum, Malian Farmer.
Can the world feed itself? In 2008 the world’s food system began to fall apart. Threatened with hunger, rich countries started buying up and leasing fertile tracks of the developing world. With 60% of all arable land in Africa, large agribusiness started to move in, often forcing out traditional, subsistence farmers. “We know already that many civil wars and social conflict is driven by land grievance, particularly in Africa” observes Liz Alden Wily, a Land Rights specialist, familiar with these growing tensions.
One country looking to open up to new agricultural opportunities is Mali. Two thirds of the African state is desert, but where the Niger River crosses the country, the land is fertile. This region is the country’s breadbasket and home to families who have farmed there for generations. “Even if a family owns only 1 hectare that is their soul. If you work this hectare well… you take care of it… it can feed you for 5 or 6 months” explains one villager, “after that you can make do. But if it is taken away what do you do?”
But not everyone in Mali wants to settle for modest and uncertain prospects, “Our harvests haven’t improved for 18 years” says Massa Sanogo a farmer from Tain. “That’s why we agreed to stop growing millet and do something new. We want to change.”
American sugar developer Mima Nedelcovych’s ambitious scheme, Sosumar, wants to deliver that change. The project, a $600 million partnership between the Government of Mali, Mima’s US-based consultancy and South African sugar giant Illovo Sugar, plans to lease 200-square kilometres of prime agricultural land for a plantation and factory. However, unlike some of his competitors, Mima sees the involvement of the local community as key to the project’s success, “Those investors… that are going out and doing the straight land grabbing. Fully mechanising and not in any way bringing in small growers or community, you might as well put yourself on death row. The project will not last.” Instead, Sosumar offers partnership to local farmers as contracted sugar cane growers with the prospect of becoming, in time, “a small commercial farmer and then a larger commercial farmer.”
Mima’s approach has polarised opinion among the region’s thousands of farming families, with some enthusiastically subscribing to his plan and others vehemently opposed, seeing the plantation as nothing short of a neo-colonial outpost. Opposition groups in the area Sosumar has earmarked for development start organising under the determined and charismatic leadership of Ibrahima Coulibaly, the head of the Malian farmers union and food security veteran, “Campaigning isn’t enough” he declares, “The government will change course when it loses in court.”
Frustrated by red tape, local opposition and cash flow problems, Sosumar struggles to get off the ground. When the project finally collapses in the aftermath of the military coup on March 21st 2012, Mima turns his attention to Nigeria, a country actively courting agri-business as it tries to wean itself off decades of oil dependency. The Malian farmers, not yet displaced by less inclusive development schemes, are left to take their chances as they have always done. Ibrahima welcomes the reprieve. For him, importing solutions to food security is a political short-cut “For (the politicians), USA and Europe are the only models, there is no other. Instead of finding real ways to develop Africa, they dream of imposing models that will never fit here.”
Filmmaker Hugo Berkeley takes a more balanced view, “What the world needs is an approach that mixes the conservation of rural practices with innovative contemporary capitalism” he says. “That’s what the people who came to Mali thought they were offering. But we will never know if it was all for real, because the experiment never went ahead. The coup earlier this year was a tragedy for the Malian people.”