In dryland sub-Saharan Africa, local institutions will play a critical role in climate change adaptation yet little is known about how they mediate issues relating to resource access, competition, and conflict in vulnerable areas. A crucial climate change adaptation strategy in these areas is agropastoral mobility, which demands sophisticated institutions that function across spatial scales. The premise of this project is that the Republic of Mali, as a model of democratic decentralization, provides an excellent case for addressing these and other critical issues relating to resource-dependent livelihoods in rural dryland areas. The research objective of this project is to examine the connections between changing systems of local governance, resource access, conflict, and environmental change in Mali by answering three interrelated questions. These questions focus on three specific areas of change: 1) the influence of decentralization on shared resource access arrangements between settled farmers and mobile herders; 2) the impact of land cover and vegetation change on livestock movements; and 3) how these institutional and environmental changes are affecting farmer-herder relations. In order to answer these questions, this project integrates three components of multi-temporal institutional and biophysical analyses of dryland resource access. First, it utilizes longitudinal comparative analysis of four Malian municipalities that are following divergent institutional trajectories vis-a-vis resource access. The second is a multi-scale participatory land use and cover change (LUCC) analysis that focuses on broad scale agricultural expansion linked to village-scale changes in the spatial patterning of cropped fields. The last component focuses on the measurement and interpretation of inter-annual trends in vegetation phenology. This activity includes a participatory exercise with livestock herders designed to understand the implications of changing phenology patterns for their livelihoods.

The trans-disciplinary and place-based approach of this project not only contributes to the scholarship on dryland agrarian livelihoods; it also opens new theoretical avenues for the study of coupled social-ecological systems more generally. This enables the project to critically engage with the hypothesis that changing environmental conditions are a potential driver of political conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. Engagement with the scholarship on resource conflict will also produce relevant insights for the study of decentralized governance and common property resource management. The project outcomes will have direct relevance for the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and herders through its investigation of how equitably local institutions provide resource access to competing user groups. A related impact comes through its study of how effectively these institutions manage everyday disputes over resource access and prevent them from escalating into larger social conflicts. These are two of the most pressing challenges facing local authorities across dryland sub-Saharan Africa.

Project Report

This project combined social and environmental methodologies in a new way in order to answer specific questions about how agrarian livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa are changing in response to ecological and institutional changes that are underway. The study focused on specific communities and 'action spaces' in Mali, West Africa. These sites were chose because, until this year, Mali has been a model of democratic governance in African and this included political decentralization, a major theme of this project, as a significant component of reform. A major finding of this project is that climate change is influencing mobility-based livelihoods, especially pastoral livestock production, in ways that have previously been overlooked. This primarily includes how changes in rainfall, pasture, and other resources impact the geographic extent and the pace of seasonal livestock movements. This is a major challenge facing agrarian communities in Africa today. This research points to important limitations inherent in the conflict management programs currently being supported in the development community. It also reveals the ways in which pastoral herders and farmers are using democratic decentralization as a way to negotiate new terms of shared resource access that are more commensurate with current environmental conditions. Rainfall has become less reliable and extensive pasture resources are less abundant that they once were. This is forcing resource-dependent communities and households to adapt through new livelihood strategies and norms of resource use. Methodologically, this study used geographic data in new ways in order to understand the causes and consequences of land use change. The study used several types of satellite-based data as well as observations collected in the field in order to understand how changes in land cover and resource availability are impacting livestock herders as well as the institutions through which herders access pasture and other key resources. An important finding in this regard is that agricultural expansion is being driven primarily through in-migration and that the resulting agricultural production is becoming increasingly important to new local governments in search of tax revenue in order to implement development projects once provided by the state. These governments thus have a strong disincentive to halt such expansion despite its deleterious impacts on other activities such as pastoral livestock herding. How livestock herders adapt to the new reality of land scarcity is an important question for rural communities in sub-Saharan African and one to which this project has contributed understanding. Overall, this project offers important insights into climate change adaptation and livelihood change in an ecologically vulnerable part of the world. See attached photos.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Antoinette WinklerPrins
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University of Wisconsin Madison
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