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Chapter 5. Surviving in the desert: the resilience of the nomadic herders Pastoralist food system of the Kel Tamasheq people in Aratène, Mali

Section 2 Sustainability of the Indigenous People’s food system


Adequacy of income opportunities

The activities that generate the highest income in the community are first and foremost those related to livestock. Live animal sales constitute approximately 60 percent of their source of income. Sheep, goats, milk, butter and cheese are amongst the main agri-food products sold by the community. Each animal species is led by a herder. The herder is different from the animals’ owner, who is the only one authorised to sell them. The owner covers the herder’s food, accommodation, clothing and health needs. He is bound to the owner by an unwritten contract lasting between 6 and 12 months and at the end of which the herder is paid with live animals previously negotiated in the verbal contract. The second-best source of income is generated by other activities and occupations carried out by men, which include trading, craftsmanship, Quranic teaching, teaching, driver, blacksmith, labourer, first-aid responder, shopkeeper, transporter and woodcutter. Shopkeepers and transporters can have relatively high revenue levels. The sale of wild food resources is the third most important source of income in the community. Jujube, sometimes processed to make ahufăr (jujube bread), and desert dates are amongst the main agri-food products sold by the community. Other products sold include wild fonio and Indian sandbur.

Ninety percent of the income is used to meet the dietary needs of the family, followed by veterinary care and transport. Health care and schooling are covered by the State and NGOs. The community members believe that the food system does not offer sufficient and adequate income opportunities. The community’s buying power is extremely weak. Marketing difficulties stem from the village’s isolation during the rainy season and the insecurity in the region.

Adequacy of diets

The community’s diet is based on milk, dairy products and meat, which constitute a typical meal or any traditional dish, together with cereals, vegetables, fruit and nuts. During transhumance, herders drink milk and eat collected wild edibles and ground cereal stored in goatskins. Their diet does not change following their departure from the village, but rather depending on the areas they pass through. The most important consideration for herders is to ensure they can preserve the food products they carry, as transhumance is a long-term challenge. The community’s diet changes seasonally with changes in the food supply. Milk is plentiful during the rainy season thanks to lactating female animals benefiting from the season’s goodness. During this period, milk, its by-products such as cheeses, and meat are the community’s primary food sources, and their diet is rarely supplemented with cereals. Plants that grow thanks to the rain, such as wild jute and okra, are more commonly used as condiments. Cereals become more important in the diet after harvest in the dry cold season, when they become community members’ main food along with meat, milk, cheeses and produce from the market. The dry hot season is the most difficult period of the year in terms of guaranteeing local produce.

Some of the herds’ reproductive females always remain in the area during transhumance to supply milk. However, animals produce less milk during this period and wild plants are less abundant. Stocking up is important because no farmed products are available. Cereals become expensive and animals are devalued. The main food during the dry hot season are cereals, meat and market produce.

According to community members, local production supplies sufficient food for consumption during the rainy season and for stocking up for the dry season. One should note that for them, the concept of sufficiency is directly linked to the permanent availability of primary foods, those that constitute the traditional and secular core of their diet produced by the local environment, namely, milk, meat and their by-products, but also nuts such as desert dates and jujube, and wild seeds. Community members get their supplies from bazaars and markets when the environment does not produce sufficiently, especially during the dry hot season. According to community members, the quality of their diet based on local production seems insufficient in terms of meat and meat-reared animals, milk and dairy products, nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables, and wild fruit (very few).

The community considers “a number of stressful situations, essentially of social nature” as obstacles for food security. These situations include drought, loss of livestock, social and land insecurity, diseases, and low funds that limit their access to food produce from the market in sufficient quantity and quality. Land insecurity is one of the factors that negatively influence the food system over time because it occurs to the detriment of livestock farming. The Lake Faguibine System area, in which the village of Aratène is situated, constantly suffers from land disputes, causing land insecurity. These issues especially concern animals being unable to access watering holes due to crop fields. Agricultural production remains insufficient to meet the needs of the community. Given the marginal nature of the activity, and what is most practised by livestock farmers, crop yield is insignificant, and harvest is insufficient in supporting the community’s dietary needs. The ground quality, which is barely productive, will hardly meet a satisfactory level of production to meet the dietary needs of the community. Another factor is inefficient production equipment like carts, ploughs and other ploughing equipment, vaccination centres, and water sources, which stems from the lack of resources.

Changes in the provision of livelihoods and social well-being over time

Until 1973, Kel Tamasheq pastoralists produced for consumption. Today, they produce for the market and are discovering the law of supply and demand, which is subject to the seasonality of the food system. Over time, the Kel Tamasheq community has understood that income opportunities in the food system have increased to keep up with their increasing population and dietary needs. Prices have varied along the same lines.

New activities such as the sale of trade and craft production, transportation (of people, building materials, food products, firewood and coal), the creation of nearby bazaars, and agri-pastoralist activities reinforce the inclination towards production for markets. The community’s trade relations with other communities are dynamic, which has resulted in an improved mutual exchange of information on the pricing of goods, stocks and farmed produce.

Since 1973, the community’s self-sufficiency has decreased due to an array of different factors such as certain lakes drying up completely, recurrent droughts, lack of assistance, insufficient incomes and the livestock’s poor productivity. Since the 1970s, the degradation of the local landscape has increased due to the different climate shocks and disruptions experienced. This resulted in the disappearance of certain plant species and wild animals, which used to be collected or hunted. Integrated crop production is a means to implement better practices. Vegetable farming and breeding hens are sideline activities that have diversified food products in the community’s diet. The breeding of hens falls under the Kel Tamasheq women’s responsibilities. This includes collecting eggs mainly for the consumption of their families, but also breeding hens that can be sold to increase income.

The Kel Tamasheq women harvest crops that are used for food preparation and consumed in a variety of recipes. In this community, regular consumption of cereals and other market products signifies helplessness in regard to their food system’s production outputs. Community members declare that they “no longer have the choice” and the survival instinct determines behaviour.



The water need is hardly met. The community accesses water through traditional wells, the pastoral well and the only solar-powered borehole in the village, whose breakdowns are disabling for the community. These sources can barely meet their water needs.

The community’s water sources, as identified on the participatory map, are the following man-made sources (boreholes, wells) and temporary surface waterholes (ponds, lakes):

the pond with the forest to the north, in the northeast;

a well in the basin with the trees, in the east;

pastoral well at dune-level in the south; and

a solar-powered borehole.

The choice of sites for traditional water sources is often a cause for land disputes, when the water source sites are in crop cultivation areas or near certain dried-out ponds that still fill slightly during the rainy season. The water source sites used to be determined by traditional indicators, which are the concentration of the vegetation and the direction in which it grew, and the concentration of livestock farmers and their animals, which is usually in line with the vegetation concentration.

The technique used to test for groundwater helps to confirm or deny the probability of the presence of water and to decide whether to drill or not. Drinking water for domestic use is the biggest reason for water demand in the Kel Tamasheq community. Households also consume water to process food and for hygiene as well as for vegetable farming irrigation. The water supply is deemed sufficient for the needs of households but not for all the community’s needs when animals and vegetable farming are considered. Water shortages can occur when the solar generator breaks down. In addition, during the dry hot season, when temperatures can reach 45 °C in the shade, all the temporary waterholes disappear. Climate change potentiates these climatic extremes. Due to water shortages, the community restricts water usage by setting opening and closing times for the improved water sources, namely, the pastoral well and the solar-powered borehole. This also helps to reduce the human and animal pressure on these water sources.

Vegetable gardening in Aratène.

Land and soil

The local ground is dry and arid and full of wadies, which means argyle valleys, rocky elevations, dunes, or sand elevations and ravines. The lack of rain, sometimes coupled with devastating and sudden floods, causes severe erosion whilst sandstorms and wind gusts at times carry everything in their paths, including humus, habitats, vegetation and household waste. These storms cause sand dune formations, which are problematic for human and animal mobility.

Certain soil defence and restoration activities centred on sustaining the ground’s production capacity are carried out following traditional methods. Such methods include sand dredging, land clearing and spreading organic household waste from the food system and domestic animal waste on crop fields and vegetable farming fields. Working the land is a secondary activity in Aratène’s pastoralist food system, compared with livestock farming, and the results from the survey have confirmed this gap. The ground quality, already barely fertile, can hardly reach a satisfactory level to meet the community’s dietary needs.

Labour and fuel energy

The food system of the Kel Tamasheq is mainly based on renewable energies such as human labour, wood, coal and solar panels, and the use of non-renewable energies like fuel and oil. The system is based above all on manual labour, which guarantees food production, mobility (transhumance and nomadism), food processing, transport, and food preparation. The most laborious and time-consuming activity is looking after the livestock, which includes feeding, veterinary care, breed selection, selling and purchasing animals, and managing their numbers. Manual labour is sufficient for these labourious and time-consuming activities as it is always guaranteed.

Wood and coal are essential for the preparation and processing of food. Cattle and camel dung are often used as wood and coal substitutes when these resources become scarce. Some households have solar panels for lighting and powering televisions. Alternatively, the community uses different sizes of electric batteries or lamp oil for nocturnal lighting. Those who own 4x4-type vehicles use fuel to travel to bazaars and markets outside of the community. The means of transport highest in demand are cars and motorcycles. On the whole, fuel and oil supply meets their demand. Supplies come from Bamako, Timbuktu, Léré and Mauritania. Supplies are regular but they can be interrupted during the rainy season when the roads are cut off.


Aratène’s food system produces very little waste thanks to a simple way of life in which the domestic equipment, both biodegradable and reusable, is made from local wood such as pestles, mortars, plates and spoons, as well as leather and skins such as bags and goatskins. The little bit of waste produced is made up of plastic and metal packaging, brought back from the markets and bazaars visited, and household cleaning waste. The waste is placed on the household’s rubbish heap, outside and right next to their plot of land, but sometimes slightly further out if there is a larger multi-household rubbish heap.

Traditionally, waste that can be composted is moved towards crop fields when it encroaches on their land. It is carried on foot, using a camel or a donkey. The community’s environment is usually clean, which is quite noticeable for any new visitor. This cleanliness is further accentuated by the sweeping gusts sandstorms create at the beginning of and during the rainy season.

Changes in resource use efficiency over time

The way water is collected has changed over time. Wells are preferred over ponds but since 1980 and 1998, boreholes are preferred over wells. In comparison with the past, this progression is a sign that water security, accessible via pumping and in quantity, is improving. Nevertheless, water needs are barely met, and breakdowns are problematic for the community. The water table reserve is decreasing due to the successive droughts caused by climate change. Wood is increasingly rare and substitutes must be found to ensure firewood for food preparation, for instance. This results in animal waste being used, when it should normally be used as organic manure, which causes a shortfall for the soil and plants.

Due to major soil degradation and dune formation, work activities are slowed down and vast expanses of land become unusable for livestock and vegetable farming as well as housing. Abandoning harsh landscapes with a marked profile and physical surface features is part of the adaptation strategies for the heterogeneity of the land. The use of energy sources has diversified to include non-renewable resources external to the local area, such as oil and fuel to power motorbikes and vehicles and oil for domestic lighting.

In summary, demand for oil has increased due to the market’s dynamics but quantifying this increase is difficult due to the nature of this trade, which lacks accountability. Demand in electricity started with the tentative introduction of solar energy.


Crop and livestock biodiversity

The cattle, ovine and caprine breeds farmed by the community are Sahel breeds. These breeds are kept in the food system despite their low production levels because of tradition, but also and mostly due to the tolerance they have acquired to the harsh local climate. The limited production levels of these Sahel breeds are related to the climatic conditions and the supply of pastoral resources in the environment. Livestock herders do not intend to introduce external breeds that are not hardened to the harsh climate, which the community tried to alleviate through pastoral mobility. This is also because of their limited resources.

Crops cultivated by the community, such as wild rice, Indian sandbur, broom corn, millet, jujube and okra, are also of sub-Saharan African origin and are well adapted to the Sahel region. Wild rice seeds are locally sourced or can be purchased at the market during seeding time when local quantities are insufficient. Millet, Indian sandbur and vegetables are purchased at the market. These are improved seed varieties and come from either the national research system or outside the country.

Wild harvested plants and animals

The community lost the right to hunt wild animals following the disappearance of wild game more than 20 years ago. Some wild plants are picked for food supplies, medicine, fodder and wood, and some are sold, depending on the season. That is the case for the gum arabic tree (Acacia nilotica), which the community does not allow to be felled. This is to safeguard the tree’s survival and, consequently, to sustain its use. Tannin is used in shoemaking, and leaves and bark are used as a medicine against food allergies and bad breath. Cut trees are used as firewood, as fodder, on village building sites (homes and public buildings), and to build animal enclosures.

Ecosystem conservation and protection

The landscape of Aratène’s community is heterogeneous and comprises diverse natural ecosystems: forests, ponds, gravel plains, lateritic plains, dune elevations and desert plains. The community’s initiatives to preserve and protect the weak ecosystem need to be catalysed further by local authorities.

An example of a successful initiative from the local authorities is the measures put in place to stop bushfires. The prohibition to fell gum arabic trees is another substantial achievement. The pastoral use of the land is free for transhumance from one area to another, with stopover dwellings. Transhumance itineraries are not formally mapped out. They are secular itineraries recognised by the entire community. There are also animal crossings, sometimes in areas of high human and agricultural density. In livestock herding, parturition is not organised, nor is mating. Addressing the decrease in animal numbers is also not on the agenda, despite the current physiognomy of the landscape and the perspective that improving it will take too long.

Livestock in transhumance.

Changes in the conservation and protection of resources over time

Crop and livestock preservation remains traditional. The community knows that the varieties and species outside the system have the disadvantage of not being adapted to the local landscape due to their intolerance to the climate and the fact that the resources needed to maintain their production level are high compared to the community’s revenues. These observations show that the use of local breeds and varieties tends to increase.

Practices, rules and current traditional customs that apply to wild plant picking and pastoralism are still the same as before. The degradation of the local landscape is very advanced due to the different climate shocks and disturbances experienced since the 1970s. Rainfall variability and the changing duration of the growing season, together with increasing temperatures, have resulted in an irreversible degradation of the vegetation. In addition, the inexorable advance of the desert also threatens the vegetation. A large part of the flora has disappeared, namely: mallow raisin (Grewia villosa Willd., Malvaceae); white cross-berry (Grewia tenax (Forssk.) Fiori, Malvaceae); false brandy bush (Grewia damine Gaertn., Malvaceae); cleome (Gynandropsis gynandra (L.) Briq., Cleomaceae); and wild watermelons (Citrullus lanatus). The activity of wild edible gathering is in constant decline due to the repetitive droughts and consequent degradation of pastoral resources. Nearly 20 years ago, the wildlife disappeared, including lions, giraffes, hyenas, ostriches, oryx, buffalos, zebras, gazelles, deer, guinea fowls, bustards, turtles, monkeys and warthogs. Today, hunting and trapping have receded naturally following the disappearance of the wildlife, decimated by armed groups proliferating in the local environment and who have no regard for the law.


Governance of natural resources

Local institutions set up either by the community or the State govern the village’s natural resources and native food system. As such, the Village Council, made up of the village chief, the notables and the religious authorities, is headed by the village chief, who is nominated for life by the administration, as proposed by the community. The Village Council, elected during a general assembly of the village, assists the chief. The Village Council is an advisory body to the communal authority and cannot make any decision regarding the commune’s life without the council’s agreement. The farmers’ cooperative, set up by members of the community, is responsible for the promotion of livestock and regulates transhumance on aspects such as departures, organization and returns. Vegetable farmers form an economic group capable of internal organization. Vegetable farming is organised by women’s associations, which set up a water management committee and decide how plots are allocated to the vegetable farming volunteers. The existence of these institutions that guide the community’s life strengthens the food system and is a sign of good governance of the community’s environment. At the end of the decentralisation period, the role of the communes was key in land management: transactions, land-use planning in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, registration, and allocation. The community’s citizens are aware of it and must speak to the communal authorities for all matters relating to land management where an official recognition of land titles is needed for third parties. The first land user possesses rights of use but not definite ownership. Access to pastures is free but is regulated by the following texts of law, which take into account the rights of third-party users:

Law on Agricultural Orientation (Law n° 06-045 of 5 September 2006)

Pastoral Charter (Law n° 01-004 of 27 February 2001)

Enforcement Decree of the Pastoral Charter (Decree n° 06-439/P-RM of 18 October 2006)

Decree on Transhumance in Mali (Decree n° 10-602/P-RM of 18 October 2010) setting out the terms of transhumance in the Republic of Mali.

There is freedom of movement and problems only exist around waterholes and pastures, which are rare and insufficient. As indicated previously, land insecurity is amongst the major obstacles to the evolution of food security and quality of food in Mali. This is especially accurate in Aratène, where herding expansion must co-exist with other land uses, such as vegetable farming. The way farmers interfere with animal crossings through crop fields is in contradiction with the legislation in force on pastoralism and transhumance. The Pastoral Charter guarantees access to pastoral resources such as salt lands, pastures, wells, waterholes and rights of use:

The present law defines the fundamental principles and general rules that govern pastoralist activity practices in the Republic of Mali. The present law recognises the essential rights of pastoralists, particularly with respect to animal mobility and access to pastoral resources. This law also defines the main obligations incumbent upon them in the practice of pastoralist activities, particularly with respect to the preservation of the environment and the respect of other people’s property (Article 1 of the Pastoral Charter).

Land disputes are usually resolved amicably, which helps limit resorting to local authorities.

The participants recognise the fact that there is an “understanding between the communities” in terms of cooperation and coordination. This understanding manifests itself in the form of dialogues about the use of natural resources between the community’s chief, the mayor, the notables and the religious authority and they recognise that, for all conflicts, solutions between the parties in dispute are always found eventually.

Changes in governance of natural resources over time

If the emergence of the cooperative movement goes hand in hand with Mali’s independence since 1960, the way village chiefs and village councils are appointed is part of the accompanying measures of communalisation dating back to 1999. In Mali, the State has delegated land management to the communes, Gargando in this case, as part of decentralisation. The community members say that in colonial times, conventions existed that were repealed with the new laws on agrarian reform since the 1980s and also with the unequal administrative division of the region. A member of the community states that:

“In our environment, land is passed on by inheritance from generation to generation. It is neither sold nor rented or used by people external to our community because we only have right of use over the land, not ownership. The land was the community’s well before colonisation and, until now, has been retained by resistance to all types of governance, but we do not own it. The community’s rights are diminishing because of the agrarian reforms and because of corrupted practices that occur within the system (State, communal and judiciary administration), but also because of the droughts and poverty.”

Prior to the Pastoral Charter adopted in 2001, no text existed to legislate transhumance through a definition of the fundamental principles and general rules that govern pastoralist activity in the Republic of Mali.


A summarized assessment of 13 indicators of resilience is presented below.

1. Exposed to disturbance: The food system has faced repeated climatic shocks and disturbances since the 1970s, especially droughts, lack of rainfall and occurrences of storms. The region has also experienced locust invasions. For these reasons, it is considered to be more exposed to disturbances than in the past.

2. Globally autonomous and locally interdependent: Discussions held with the community indicate that 65 percent of the food for the family comes from the local environment, versus 35 percent purchased, donated or bartered. The food system is locally interdependent given the relations with other communities and via barter and local exchanges.

3. Appropriately connected: The food system’s connection to surrounding markets, located within a maximum radius of 150 km, facilitates the community’s access to market foods, which in turn has allowed for a diversification of income opportunities over time. This has been a logical consequence of the increase in food requirements related to demographic growth and the opening of increasingly dynamic and diversified markets. However, a substantial challenge is that the village is landlocked in winter during heavy rainfall, with all roads being cut off.

4. Socially self-organised: The native food system is self-organised. Also present are local institutions governing natural resources set up by the community and social support, which is particularly strong and represented by the Zakhat. Zakhat is a sort of charity where certain “wealthy” people within the food system, such as owners of cattle or land, donate to the poor in the community, often in the form of animals. The Zakhat is donated as follows: (1) yield: split 50-50 with those who provided manual labour, usually those in need; and (2) animals: each year, large owners count their animals and donate to the poor: one 2-year-old female camel out of a camel herd of 25 heads or more; one sheep out of a flock of sheep of up to 25 heads; one 4-year-old bull out of a cattle herd of 30 heads; one in-calf heifer out of a cattle herd of more than 40 heads; one 2-year-old sheep and one 2-year-old goat out of a flock of sheep/goat of 40/40 heads; or one 2-year-old sheep out of a flock of sheep/goat totalling up to 100 heads.

5. Reflective and shared learning: To tackle shocks and disturbances, the community implemented adaptation strategies such as relocating certain houses due to flooding, the abandonment of risk areas for animals such as ponds and shallow rocks, and the construction of mud houses, tents or other makeshift shelters in the forest to shelter from the cold. However, the community lacks resources to deal with pests. It is becoming increasingly evident that changes in food security adaptation strategies are moving towards the progressive acceptance of foods from the market.

6. Honours legacy: Community members have great respect for maintaining their traditions related to their local food system, whilst still being open to innovations. There are few indications of local practices being at risk of deteriorating. Local methods for livestock and vegetable farming ensure the community’s preservation of breeds and local varieties, due to their acquired adaptation to the harsh climate.

7. Builds human capital: Traditional know-how on pastoralism, food processing and craftsmanship is passed on orally by elders and learned by heart by younger generations of the community. However, the lack of written documentation poses a threat to the survival of traditional knowledge. The State-built health centre covers health care provision for the community and the State school provides basic education for the children of the community. The education further provides children with the ability to document their traditional knowledge.

8. Coupled with local natural capital: The food system is strongly coupled with natural capital. Agrochemicals are not used and soil is fertilized with kitchen scraps and animal dejections, allowing the recycling of nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen in crops and vegetable fields. The major problems of soil degradation relate to the formation of gravel and sand dunes, slowing down soil cultivation by taking over vast expanses of land, making them unusable for livestock and vegetable farming or housing. Further, local wood sources are in decline.

9. Ecologically self-regulated: Animal species and several varieties of plants have disappeared, and their habitat has deteriorated. However, community members have a high level of understanding the importance of ecological interactions between livestock and the environment, and of allowing the environment to regenerate. One of the reasons behind the decrease in animal species was over-hunting for food in previous decades. The main reason behind the decrease in plant species is the advancing desert and droughts, which have resulted in certain local lakes and ponds drying out completely. The community lives in an increasingly harsh environment in which it needs to adapt. Efforts and local initiatives, helped by significant resources, are still needed to guarantee ecological regulation of the food system.

10. Functional diversity: Livestock farming, crops, vegetable farming, and gathering of wild edibles supplies foods that fall into 11 food groups. The market also provides foods from several food groups, including pulses, which are otherwise not present in the local production system. The food system’s diversity also builds on non-food local resources, such as firewood, plants for traditional medicine, and domestic equipment made from local wood such as mortars, pestles, spoons and plates.

11. Optimally redundant: Farming multiple livestock and crop species, as well as the supply of food from multiple systems, contribute to the redundancy of the system. The diversity of processed foods and the diversity of external markets and bazaars available are also optimally redundant.

12. Spatial and temporal heterogeneity: The local landscape of Aratène’s community is heterogeneous and comprises diverse natural ecosystems such as forests, ponds, gravel plains, lateritic plains, dune elevations and desert plains. Their production and consumption are based on seasonality through their activities of the food system such as transhumance, nomadism, and the reproduction cycles of domesticated and wild plants.

13. Reasonably profitable: Income opportunities have increased over time, logically following the increasingly dynamic and diversified markets. Sales of animals constitute the main source of income. New activities such as trade and the sale of craft products, transport, the creation of the surrounding bazaars and agro-pastoralism reinforce the move towards markets. Currently, pastoralists produce for the market.

“Animals are everything for a Kel Tamasheq. We drink their milk, we eat their meat, we use their skin, we exchange them. When the animals die, so do the Kel Tamasheq.”

Kel Tamasheq saying.