Ongoing fighting and the fear of reprisal killings has severely disrupted normal migration patterns for pastoralists in northern Mali, putting them and their families in danger of severe food insecurity and poverty as the lean season approaches.
The regions of Gao and Timbuktu remain volatile, with sporadic attacks and banditry. The most recent attack in Timbuktu, on 30 March, involved an attempted suicide bombing. Military operations in northern Kidal Region’s Ifoghas mountains have come to an end, but the region is far from secure, and tensions persist over the control of Kidal town by the Tuareg independence group the MNLA.
Limited migration, rise in tension
Insecurity has caused pastoralists to disperse widely across the north, but has also limited the migration routes of some for fear of violence. Thousands of Tuareg and Arab herders have taken refuge in neighbouring countries, too afraid of reprisal attacks to return to Mali’s pastoral zone north of the Niger River.
According to the Mali head of the NGO Action against Hunger, Franck Vanatelle, herders have mainly either headed north towards Kidal or northern Gao, or have stayed by the river in Gao and Timbuktu. According to Agronomists and Veterinarians without Borders (AVSF), criminality and banditry are very high in market areas in this zone.
Herders are gathering near the Mauritanian and Burkina Faso borders in the east, which is upping tensions between herders and farmers, said AVSF head Marc Chapon.
Experts fear that the southward movement of French military forces to the riverine pastoralist zones of Gao and Timbuktu will further disrupt herder movements as they flee potential violence.
Looted stocks, fodder out of reach
Over the course of 2012, herders in the occupied north lost considerable stocks as Islamist groups either seized their animals or bought them at very low prices. Mohamed Ould Rhissa, a pastoralist in Timbuktu, told IRIN, “I lost half of my herd during the occupation [of the north]. I had more than 200 animals, but now I have about 50 left. The jihadists came each week to take whichever ones they wanted.”
Rhissa says he can no longer feed his 50 remaining animals; a bag of fodder is up from US$15 before the occupation to $40 now, and there is not enough pasture just outside of Timbuktu, where his animals remain, to feed them. “I don’t know what I’ll do with them - it’s hard to find water, pasture, people who have money to buy them. I can’t migrate because of the insecurity. It’s really sad.”
Fodder is also largely unavailable as many of the big fodder traders have fled the country. Other suppliers who usually come from southern Nigeria to exchange fodder for food are staying put this year, according to Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET).
Gao resident Oumarou Ag told IRIN some herders are simply giving their animals away to the military as they cannot afford to feed them. Some of those who managed to migrate south, to the river valley around Mopti, have had to sell their animals at very low prices.
“In Gao, the livestock sector will have to be completely overhauled, otherwise it will be a catastrophe,” he told IRIN.
Animal markets paralyzed
The closure of the Algerian border means no animal markets are functioning 50km north of the river, in Timbuktu and Gao. Almost all the commercial exchange taking place is between small traders who exchange food for animals.
While the price of animals is traditionally on the rise this time of year, it cannot keep up with the soaring price of cereals, creating poor terms of trade. According to recent assessments, cereal prices are up to 70 percent higher than the five-year average in some parts of the north, sparking concern of mounting food insecurity.
Pastoralists who have gone to markets in Gao town say they cannot sell their animals as no one is around or able to buy them.
Pastoralists have considerably cut their meat and milk consumption, according to the World Food Programme, which did not give figures.
Even in a normal year, pastoralists’ difficult season starts in around April or May, when pasture starts to run out, while the lean season for farmers will worsen between April and June.
“We feel abandoned,” said Rhissa. “No one is helping us. NGOs give food for people, but none of them - nor the government - thinks of us. Livestock will soon become a ghost sector.”
For the past year, the government has been more or less absent from the north, meaning all official animal support activities have stopped. According to AVSF’s Chapon, the only veterinary and vaccination operations to take place in the north - in northern Gao and Timbuktu - have been theirs, meaning overall coverage for animals is very low.
“High concentrations of animals in certain valleys, areas near lakes and other bodies of water mean there is a strong risk of diseases breaking out,” said Chapon, who urged agencies and the government to decide whether a mass vaccination campaign would be feasible in 2013. But vaccination coverage would likely be hampered by the constant power cuts in the north, which would make it difficult and expensive to maintain a vaccine cold chain.
AVSF is setting up three mobile animal and person health teams in the northern Timbuktu and Gao regions, as well as six health posts. The NGO is also considering re-stocking animals for families who lost a lot of their livestock either through looting, as a result of the 2011-2012 crisis, or because they fled, leaving their animals behind.