A surge in fighting in central Mali has forced hundreds of villagers from farmland they depend on and could leave them without enough food to survive this year, according to a study of satellite imagery by the UN’s World Food Programme.
More than half the number of violent attacks by armed groups against Mali civilians last year were recorded in the Mopti region, largely targeting people who survive on land or livestock.
Mopti has become a hotspot for violence and the UN has repeatedly warned of humanitarian disasters facing communities there.
At least 100 villages showed damage in the satellite imagery used by the WFP, which revealed farming had been severely curtailed and sometimes stopped completely.
“What really shocked me is that not only could you see a very drastic loss, you could see a change in patterns,” said the WFP’s Laure Boudinaud.
Hundreds of villages now had buffer zones of no more than 2km in which farmers were able to cultivate. Crops are now grown closer together when compared with older satellite images that showed villages completely surrounded by farmland.
“In this buffer people would cultivate, but nothing beyond,” she said.
Islamist armed groups have been operating in Mopti since 2017, but tensions are growing between the Dogon and Fulani communities. Several major attacks in 2019 targeted Fulani villages, raising concerns about ethnic cleansing.
Large parts of the UN human rights council’s January report on Mali focused on Mopti, detailing cases of children being found dead in fields and a villager killed after going in search of his wandering cattle. It also reported animal theft and food stores being burned in attacks by rival militias.
Boudinaud said the farmers confirmed what the images showed, as did the empty villages in areas where there was now no identifiable crops.
“People took us to this line [at the edge of their fields] and showed us, ‘look over there’, and there were armed people. Depending on the ethnic group, there was another ethnic group on the edge of the area they were cultivating,” she said.
The WFP is hoping to share the satellite data with the government to direct food aid.
Separate research led by agricultural economist Edoardo Masset, deputy director of the Centre of Excellence in Development Impact and Learning, said there were signs that armed groups targeted remote areas where they could loot livestock.
“This is people’s livelihoods, they have no alternative. They could leave but that’s not really an option, especially for farmers. What can they do in Bamako?”
Moussa Cisse, a humanitarian worker from Mopti, said farmers in their fields risked death. “The farmer encountered in the bush is tied up, beheaded and skinned. Each is on the lookout and attacks the other. And more often than not it is innocent people who pay the price,” he said.
“Pastoralists and farmers are impoverished, disorganised and desperate. They are living a real ordeal under the indifferent, even accusatory gaze of the authorities. The activities in the eastern part of the region are reduced to their bare essentials.”