February 11, 2012

The Tuareg Crisis in Mali

It has been over a week now since Tuaregs in Mali began running from the hostilities that engulfed their homes. The numbers were up to 60,000 people a few days ago, and rising -- half of them internally displaced. Population figures for Tuaregs in Mali are very difficult to calculate accurately for many reasons, but 60,000 may be close to 80-90% of the entire Tuareg population in Mali.

The media keep advertising the rebellion as the main reason that people had to leave. But there were many important contributing factors that had been brewing for a long time before the rebellion started in mid-January. The hostilities that generated militias, mobs, looting, and even genocidal actions have been developing over a long time.

At the base, Mali is a poor country, largely desert, and basic food and land resources are scarce for many people -- even though the country has significant energy resources. Climate change and droughts have increased the problems for subsistence farmers, and especially for pastoralists trying to survive in the expanding desert. The past year has been particularly difficult because of recurrent drought and famine. The social inequalities that have plagued Mali since Independence have not been solved; they emerged in the colonial era and have persisted. Corruption exists in every country; but it has the most disastrous effects in countries such as Mali where people are deprived of development because of it. Major world powers and corporations are actors in this crisis, too.

All of these things are contributing factors to the crisis in Mali.

Rebellions are something that people do when they cannot do anything within a system to improve their dire situation. We do not want to pass judgment one way or the other, but it is important to understand the big picture that explains why people are doing what they are doing. It is important to recognize all of the factors that have contributed to the refugee situation. The refugees had to run because they were helpless in the face of all these factors. They need water and food right now -- but they need much more than the means to survive. They need to find a way to go home and return to normal life, with dignity. And they need to feel safe, and protected from hate and hostility.

Ultimately, it's going to take resolution of some of these other factors. There are some things that people cannot change -- for example, the long-term climate change that is affecting farming and pastoralism. But people can change the way they are making decisions about other things. The people at the bottom have little power to effectuate any major change. What is needed is a change of direction on the part of government leaders, major world powers, and corporations. Change must come from the top.

-- Barbara A. Worley, Ph.D.

Anthropologist, The University of Massachusetts, Boston