Environment in Mali Essay

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The republic of Mali is completely landlocked and lies in the center of the West African landmass. This nation of 1,240,000 square kilometers is the largest in terms of surface area in West Africa. Mali’s 10.7 million people comprise 10 ethnic groups of which the Mande groups (Bambara, Malinke, and Soninka) are the most numerous (50 percent). The country is composed of three major climatic zones: a vast desert region in the north, a Sahelian band through the middle of the country, and a Sudanian zone in the south.

About 65 percent of Mali’s land area is considered desert or semi-desert. Average rainfall in the desert region ranges from 0 to 350 millimeters, in the Sahel region from 350 to 600 millimeters, and in the Sudanean region from 600 to 1,200 millimeters. Southern Mali (Sudanean region) has two distinct seasons: A rainy season from June to October and a dry season from November to May. The dry season is divided into a cold season (November-February) and a hot season (March-May). Dust-laden harmattan winds from the North often sweep across the country during the dry season.

After several years of above average rainfall in the 1950s and 1960s, Mali experienced severe droughts in the 1968-72 and 1984-85 periods. These droughts led to concerns in the scientific and donor communities that Mali was experiencing a broad pattern of desertification largely caused by human activities. Subsequent research has demonstrated that declining vegetative cover was driven more by cyclical downturns in rainfall than local management practices.

The French ruled Mali from 1916 to 1960 as part of the French Sudan. The French were never very numerous in the country and practiced a highlycentralized and direct form of rule. Mali gained independence in 1960 as part of the Mali Federation with Senegal. Senegal left this federation after only a few months.

While French is the administrative language, Bamanan is the most widely spoken language (particularly in the south), followed by Fulani. Approximately 80 percent of the population understands Bamanan. Islam is the predominant religious practice (90 percent) and has been noticeably influenced by now waning animist traditions. One legacy of French colonialism was a militaristic forest service that aggressively established tree plantations and repressed bush fires in the 1980s. This led to popular resentment and the near dissolution of the forestry service following a transition to democracy in the early 1990s.

Mali is ranked among the poorest countries in the world. This poverty, combined with concerns about environmental degradation, led many analysts to assert that Mali was trapped in a vicious downward cycle of poverty-induced environmental degradation. Subsequent research has questioned such causality. Mali’s economy is largely natural resource-based with 80 percent of the labor force involved in agriculture.

Mali was sub-Saharan Africa’s leading cotton exporter in 1998-99 at 560 million tons, with the crop accounting for half of the country’s foreign exchange earning and nearly half of government revenues in recent years. Some analysts have raised concerns about the sustainability of cotton production in Mali. Such concerns receive limited governmental attention due to the importance of cotton exports to the national economy. Other major exports include cattle and gold.


  1. M. Herrmann, A. Anyamba, and C.J. Tucker, “Recent Trends in Vegetation Dynamics in the African Sahel and Their Relationship to Climate,” Global Environmental Change (v.15, 2005);
  2. Keeley and I. Scoones, Understanding Environmental Policy Processes: Cases from Africa (Earthscan, 2003);
  3. W.G. Moseley, “Global Cotton and Local Environmental Management: The Political Ecology of Rich and Poor Small-Hold Farmers in Southern Mali,” Geographical Journal (v.171, 2005);
  4. Swift, “Desertification: Narratives, Winners and Losers,” in M. Leach and R. Mearns, eds., The Lie of the Land (Oxford, 1996).

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