West African Climate Change Bests Nomads

A dramatic change in the climate of west Africa over the past 40 years has forced many nomads to settle down in villages. One consequence is people who once lived entirely off the land now depend on foreign aid and charity for their existence. The question is whether they'll ever be able to become independent.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

And I'm John Ydstie.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: NPR and National Geographic are spending a year traveling the globe to see how the world's climate is changing and how those changes are affecting the U.S. This month, we stop off in West Africa.

A dramatic change in the climate of West Africa over the past 40 years has forced many nomads to give up their way of life and settle down in villages. One consequence is people who once lived entirely off the land now depend on foreign aid and charity for their existence. The question is whether they'll ever be able to become independent.

In the latest installment of our Climate Connections series with National Geographic, NPR's Richard Harris visits a town near Timbuktu in Mali.

RICHARD HARRIS: If you head west from the city of Timbuktu, you'll follow a road that's been newly paved not by the cash-strapped government of Mali but by neighboring Libya. About 70 miles out that scrubby desert road, turn left onto a spur and you'll suddenly encounter an irrigated field that stretches for acres. Listen.

(Soundbite of wind blowing)

HARRIS: That's a sound you'd expect here in the American Midwest but not on the edge of the Sahara Desert. It's wheat blowing in the wind.

Mr. MOHAMMED ALI AG-ALMUBARAK(ph) (Dukuria, Mali): (Speaking foreign language)

HARRIS: Mohammed Ali Ag-Almubarak wears a red, yellow and green striped sash to distinguish him as the mayor of Dukuria(ph). He's taken us to the wheat field to show it off. His people are Tuaregs. For thousands of years, they herded their animals from one green spot to the next, never staying long at any one camp.

But a series of droughts that killed their animals have made that way of life simply too difficult so they are settling down. And it's remarkable how far they've come in just a few years. They are now planting fields, building houses, even buying cell phones. They are trying to join the modern world, and they need a lot of help to do that.

Mr. AG-ALMUBARAK: (Speaking foreign language)

HARRIS: The mayor explains that the charity CARE International bought them wheat seeds to plant in the field. The U.S. Agency for International Development provided money to fix an old pump so the crops can be irrigated from the nearby Niger River. A new type of food and a new way of life for these former nomads, but it is just the start.

Mr. AG-ALMUBARAK: (Speaking foreign language)

HARRIS: Where do you sell the wheat?

Mr. AG-ALMUBARAK: (Through translator) Actually, we grow the wheat for our own survival, not to sell it but to eat it. It's not even enough for us. The community of Dukuria has 21 villages and we have to produce enough to feed all those people.

(Soundbite of tractor engine)

HARRIS: So wheat is dinner, not a source of income for this village. At the moment, Dukuria seems to have few ways to earn money. It's not clear, for instance, how long they'll be able to pay for fuel for this shiny, red tractor that a charity has given the village.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

HARRIS: On our way into town we do meet a few women who are making leather purses and pouches. The mayor explains that CARE International has helped the town buy materials to start this project. But tourists never come this far into the desert and the women don't know how to get their handcrafts to distant markets.

So climate change in this part of Africa has, for the moment at least, created an economy based on charity. The big question is how they can ever make enough money to become self-sufficient.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

HARRIS: We come in to the town of Dukuria. A big crowd has gathered in the village square to greet us and our traveling companions, people from CARE International.

(Soundbite of camel chattering)

HARRIS: A dozen men sitting on camels offer to stage a race for us. The camels don't seem too happy about this. Then some local politicians grab a microphone that's connected to a P.A. system powered by a car battery.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

HARRIS: The local politicians make warm speeches welcoming the benefactors who are keeping this town afloat.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

(Soundbite of music)

HARRIS: After the pomp is over, the mayor and some of the village elders lead us out to a camp they have put up for their guests. We settle under an immense starry sky.

(Soundbite of music)

HARRIS: The villagers and the people from CARE pull their straw mats around the fire and talk for a long time about where they have come from and how far they still have to go.

Unidentified Man #3: (Through translator) When you settle down, you need to build a good house because you're no longer moving around every day. When you settle down, your relatives who also want to stop being nomads need your help and you have to share everything you have with them.

HARRIS: New nomads arrive all the time and that puts even more strain on the already stretched resources in Dukuria, essentials like clean water and arable land for crops. Shortage also leads to conflict, and we get a taste of that during the evening discussions.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

HARRIS: One old man is clearly upset about everything he's had to give up as he left his nomadic life. He's even mad that the mayor is speaking French, rather than the Tuareg language, Tamasheq.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

HARRIS: Mayor Almubarak tells us it's true, settling down has raised a whole new set of problems for the Tuareg people. But with the climate so dry now in this part of the world, it was really their best choice.

Mr. AG-ALMUBARAK: (Through translator) Whatever calamity comes next, we can weather to some extent because we have settled down.

HARRIS: Back in the capital city of Bamako, we meet a man who has done a lot to help create the growing village of Dukuria, Marc de Lamotte. He is in charge of CARE International's operations in Mali. Dukuria has also named him an honorary citizen both out of gratitude and as a constant reminder. De Lamotte knows Dukuria will eventually have to develop its own sustainable economy. And as we talk at his conference table, he tells us he's impressed by the Tuareg's progress.

Mr. MARC DE LAMOTTE (CARE International, Mali): They started from scratch, you know. Having nothing. And yes, they need our support. They need our help. But they also know, because this is where we work with them, that they have to show us that they are willing to do something by themselves.

HARRIS: Is there a way for this village to evolve over time so that it can have some source of income?

Mr. DE LAMOTTE: I believe so, because I've seen tremendous difference between before, you know, when they had no support from us or from anybody else, and now. So we would continue to support this community. And I'm sure the next time you come you will see an even greater difference.

HARRIS: Climate change in Northern Mali so far has apparently been a natural fluctuation, but forecasts say this is what the future could look like in many parts of the world. So the struggle of the Tuareg is likely a glimpse of what's to come.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

YDSTIE: You can see how the nomads are trying to build a new life in a slideshow at npr.org/climateconnections. And while you're there, you can get a very different take on global warming from our animated cartoon series, "It's All About Carbon."

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