Post-war in Mali: Elephant conservation requires united communities

by Jun 12, 2013Elephants

Why is an organization concerned with elephant conservation convening a national workshop on reconciliation, aid and reconstruction?

In short, it is because sustainable elephant conservation requires wise and equitable environmental management, and such environmental management requires united communities. By contrast, in post-conflict central Mali, the Gourma Region, communities are divided, bitterly riven by the trauma of trying to cope with the onslaught of brutal external forces – such as the arrival of foreign Islamist insurgents, the rise of drug trafficking across the Sahara, the return of mercenaries from Libya – in a time of complete lawlessness.

Aid and reconstruction activities for the Gourma will begin soon, but lessons from past experience (the rebellions and droughts of the 1980s and 1990s) show that unless these resources are deployed with an awareness of the social landscape, well-intentioned external interventions will exacerbate existing social tensions — often benefiting the wrong people and further destabilising the situation. This then sows the seeds for further environmental and social problems in the future.

The idea for a workshop on “The Challenge of Reconciliation and Post-conflict Reconstruction” arose while we were assessing the post-conflict situation in the Gourma to determine how we were best able to target our next phase of work and resources. It was clear that rebuilding communities would be essential to continue our work, but also that sustainable resource management could be a means of strengthening community reconciliation. How best to do this? A first step is to try and understand the diversity of responses to the conflict and the crisis. Why did some people flee and others did not? Why did some young men join the jihadis (Islamist insurgents) while others did not? What caused the differences between these groups?

Preliminary discussions identified general groups of people in the Gourma in terms of the motivation that led them to particular courses of action, both during the conflict and afterwards.

During the conflict there were those who fled for fear of being targeted by the armed groups because of the colour of their skin or their association with government or westerners, while others fled because they hoped to gain financially from their refugee status. Others, already wealthy, hoped to increase their wealth and power during the post-conflict reconstruction.
Some joined the jihadis because they were paid large amounts of money and given a weapon. The latter allowed some to pillage, hijack vehicles, steal, and engage in illegal trafficking, while others were employed by the armed groups as cooks and drivers and participated in or became associated with abusive acts. Finally there were those imams (Muslim priests) who allied themselves with the jihadis and, together with pupils at some koranic schools, were responsible for imposing Sharia law on their own populations.

We then conducted informal interviews with local people and telephone interviews with Mayors and other community leaders who had retreated to safe cities but were still in contact with their communities, to test and refine our analysis. Post conflict, our sources estimate that around a third of the population is either displaced or a refugee. There are those who fled but still fear the potential lack of security, and there are those who want to obtain the maximum benefit from their status as refugee. The area is awash with firearms, while those who have committed crimes against their own communities are hiding in the forests and fear returning, because of reprisals from their community or being handed over to the military. Unless a way can be found for as many of these as possible to be reintegrated, they will be forced to flee and risk embarking on a life of crime and potential radicalization.

And yet, unless aid and reconstruction activities are well designed and targeted, past lessons show that the situation could be made worse. For example, attempting to disarm the people through offering money for the return of arms resulted in this money often being used to buy more arms. External development aid has also been monopolised by wealthy individuals and ended up in the hands of criminal elements. New settlements and infrastructure have been hastily created without thought to their environmental and social impacts, thereby decreasing the ability of the socio-ecological system to respond to environmental and socio-political impacts. A degraded environment is less able to withstand dry years and support its population. Poverty and hunger render a community more susceptible to external co-option.

We shared our findings with the Ministry for Decentralisation and Land Management and the Ministry of the Environment and Sanitation, and they requested that we help them design and implement a three-day workshop for the top levels of national and regional Malian government (with representatives from 12 Ministries), together with representatives of local communities, and from the national Reconciliation Commission to address the central question:

How can essential and urgent humanitarian assistance be quickly deployed to alleviate the present suffering, without further aggravating the social and environmental imbalances that are already posing a threat to a sustainable and peaceful future?

The question was addressed through considering each of three themes in turn:

  1. Sharing, structuring and learning from the information available
  2. The roads to reconciliation
  3. Planning the way forward: who needs to do what and the elaboration of an action plan

The discussion was dynamic and fascinating as perspectives from the ground met those from central government, and participants worked hard to engage with the details and nuances of the situation to create the elements of an action plan. In order to focus the discussion, Nomba Ganame, our Field Manager, presented a categorisation of the different groups of refugees and displaced persons according to their motivation in leaving their communities.

The final report of the meeting will be released within the next week or so, but some key conclusions included:

  • Reconciliation within and between communities is a pre-requisite for aid and reconstruction activities, and
  • All efforts should aim for the reconstruction of communities as they were pre-conflict
  • Local communities must be involved in the design of post-conflict aid and reconstruction to ensure that these activities are correctly targeted and achieve the desired results.

The next step will be the sharing of the workshop findings with Mali’s technical and financial partners before taking the process to the communities themselves.