Mali: Timbuktu’s economy at a standstill

25 June, 2013
June 2013, Timbuktu, Mali: In Timbuktu, the mass exodus of people fleeing conflict has devastated the local economy and ground agricultural production to a halt. Credit: OCHA/Ulrike Dassler
June 2013, Timbuktu, Mali: In Timbuktu, the mass exodus of people fleeing conflict has devastated the local economy and ground agricultural production to a halt. Credit: OCHA/Ulrike Dassler

The massive movement of people triggered by the conflict in northern Mali has devastated the region’s economy, and its agricultural production has all but ground to a halt. Tens of thousands of farmers and tradesmen in and around the city of Timbuktu are struggling to make a living.

Nearly 530,000 people have been forced from their homes in northern Mali since fighting began in March 2012, with more than 353,000 fleeing to southern and central Mali and around 175,000 seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.

Nearly a quarter of Timbuktu’s 45,000 inhabitants joined the exodus. Although the security situation has slowly started to improve, inter-community tensions remain, and few of those who left the historic city have returned.

Mohammed, a cement merchant, explains his concerns: “The commodity trade (of flour, oil and sugar) has reached a standstill,” he says wearily. “Every sector has been affected and many unemployed young people have now left town.”

Farmers are particularly badly affected by the economic slowdown. Because the rains only last three months in northern Mali, farmers struggle to earn enough from their land and many of them adopt secondary professions, becoming masons, carpenters or cobblers. But with so many people gone, demand for their services has almost disappeared and many of them have been forced to draw from their own limited, household reserves.

The return of people to Timbuktu is being organized by a local committee that was established with support from OCHA, the Municipality of Timbuktu, the United Nations Refugee Agency and local leaders. Progress is slow. By mid-June, the International Organization for Migration had only registered about 3,400 returnees.

Next harvest at stake

The situation is also worrying for those living in areas surrounding Timbuktu, where about 50 per cent of young people have left their villages. Yehia Traoré, Director of the Timbuktu Agricultural Cooperative, is deeply concerned.

“Who will take care of the fields when the season starts?” he asks. “We have a serious labour shortage. We need machines, tractors and motorized ploughs to bridge the gap.”

Before the conflict, farmers used to produce their own seeds but now they depend on international aid.

“Agriculture is on the brink of disaster,” continued Traoré. “If we do not get assistance now, we will not be able to plant crops for the next season.”

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization and its partners are working with groups like Traoré’s to develop and implement programmes that will restart agricultural production quickly.

Yet even this is only part of the solution. Traoré insists that beyond seeds, it is extremely important for communities splintered by the conflict to begin to trust each other again so that Timbuktu’s inhabitants can live together in harmony and lasting peace.

Mali’s wider crisis

The situation in Timbuktu and surrounding areas is indicative of Mali’s wider crisis. Throughout the country an estimated 3.5 million people are considered food insecure with 1.4 million of them in need of immediate food assistance. Approximately 660,000 children under the age of five remain at risk of acute malnutrition and Mali has the third highest child mortality rate in the world (176 per 1,000 live births).

The Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel, Mr. Robert Piper, who recently concluded a visit to Mali, said he remains very concerned about the severity of the humanitarian situation and the low level of humanitarian funding.

“Warning indicators are flashing for the whole country, with people in the north being most vulnerable,” he said.

As of today, only about 33 per cent of the US$410 million that humanitarian agencies need to support communities in Mali has been received. More money must be found, said Piper, “before the situation deteriorates further still.”

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