Mali’s centuries-old pastoralist traditions wilt as the climate changes

  • As the world rediscovers the ingenuity of nature-based solutions, a detailed FAO report published this year highlights the traditions of nomadic pastoralists in Mali who have sustained an eco-friendly lifestyle over centuries.
  • The Kel Tamasheq people, living amid the Saharan sands near Timbuktu, eat primarily local produce, generate little waste, and boast a negligible carbon footprint.
  • The community’s world revolves around a transhumance tradition that follows seasonal movement; during the dry season, which lasts for more than six months of the year, the pastoralists migrate south with their livestock in search of grazing land and water.
  • Climate change and increasing desertification have heavily impacted the food system of the Kel Tamasheq, especially the withering of Lake Faguibine, intensifying the community’s dependence on markets.

Movement is a way of life among the Kel Tamasheq of northern Mali. Living near Timbuktu, the transhumance traditions of this branch of nomadic Tuaregs (or Touaregs) who speak Tamasheq have persisted since before the 15th century.

According to Aboubacrine ag Mohamed Mitta, a member of the Kel Tamasheq people, their ancestors were pure nomads. They lived as nomads, following their animals in the middle of the desert. Mitta is also the president of the Network of Pastoral Peoples in the Sahel, known by its French acronym RPPS, and one of the authors of the most comprehensive report on Indigenous food systems published by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

“We try to follow in their footsteps,” he told Mongabay in a video interview.

Faithfulness to tradition isn’t just a matter of reverence for the Kel Tamasheq. Living amid the unforgiving Saharan sands, it’s essential for survival. The region receives less than 200 millimeters (8 inches) of rainfall a year, and temperatures exceed 45° Celsius (113° Fahrenheit) in the summer.

A nomadic pastoralist lifestyle may appear out of place in a world that thrives on the subjugation of the natural system, particularly the control of food production. But the Kel Tamasheq’s ability to mold their lives around their environment could hold the clues to navigating a planet thrown out of whack by rapid warming.

By 2100, northern Mali could itself be, on average, 4.7°C (8.5°F) hotter, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the U.N.’s top climate research body. In the West African nation, where nearly 65% of the land is either desert (Sahara) or arid (Sahel), the specter of desertification looms large. Sahelian areas could soon resemble its northern desert as the Sahara seeps southward across Africa.

While the desert is swelling, the nomadic world itself is slowly dissolving due to external pressures and internal changes. The report from the FAO is an attempt to focus attention on and document this way of life, and in particular, their dietary traditions.

In Mali, where nearly 65% of the land is either desert (Sahara) or arid (Sahel), the specter of desertification looms large. Image © RPPS.

A sustainable food system in the desert

In the Western world, Timbuktu sits at the imagined edges of the Earth. Aratène, where the FAO survey was carried out, is further west of Timbuktu, one of the largest cities in Mali, the capital of the northern Tombouctou region.

During the dry season, which lasts for more than six months of the year, the pastoralists migrate south with their livestock in search of grazing land and water. “Animals are everything for a Kel Tamasheq. We drink their milk. We eat their meat, we use their skin, we exchange them,” a local saying goes. “When the animals die, so do the Kel Tamasheq.”

Goats are a great example of this principle. Live goats supply milk and cheese. In death, the animals provide meat and goatskins to store provisions in settlements and on long journeys.

The landscape they traverse is sandy and sparse, sporting shrubs and thorny bushes, desert dates (Balanites aegyptiaca), jujubes (Ziziphus spp.), milkweeds (Calotropis spp.) and spurges (Euphorbia spp.). Women and girls collect jujubes and dates that grow on trees. The dates are used to make a traditional drink, ăšăboraɣ, while jujubes are used to make both a drink and a kind of bread.

These trees are also the source of cures for disorders like diabetes and hypertension. Parts of the date tree can be burned and ground to produce a balm for injuries and boils.

The rainy season is earmarked for stocking cereal, gardening and the sale of goods. At the markets, sheep, goats, milk, butter and cheese are in plentiful supply. Food products not produced locally are purchased in the market, like rice, sorghum, tea, sugar and honey.

Today, the communities get more than a third of their food from markets. Even heavily processed items like pasta and powdered milk are infiltrating their diets. However, to members of the community, these are mostly seen as complements in their diets. Locally produced food is still the main dish. According to Mitta, if a Tuareg can’t find milk, meat or butter, their health cannot be good. Because one is born into this, he said, if you live on other foods, you can’t be healthy.

The ecological footprint of nomads is light. Moving out of areas without water and grazing land and returning in due course allows the land time to regenerate. Manual labor is the nomad’s most important energy source for everything from the care of animals to food preparation. Wood and coal are also used in cooking; sometimes cattle and camel dung will also do as fuel. Most of the waste produced by the communities is biodegradable as it originates from animal or plant matter.

“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,” goes a local saying. Image © RPPS.

Climate change threatens nomadic food system

Tracing the footsteps of their ancestors is becoming increasingly difficult for the Kel Tamasheq. Drought, sandstorms, flooding and the exceptional precariousness of resource availability are all taking a toll. “The main threat is the absence of rains. Without rains, there’s a drought, so animals can’t live. It impacts the nomadic population, with no food — no milk, no butter, no meat,” Mitta said.

Repercussions from severe droughts in the 1970s are still being felt today. Droughts struck Mali again in 1982 and ’84. The livestock herds slimmed to about 15% of their original size.

For centuries, five interlinked lakes (Télé, Takara, Gouber, Kamango and Faguibine) splayed 80 kilometers (49 miles) west of Timbuktu city, provided water for the Kel Tamasheq of the region. It was one of Mali’s most fertile tracts. In recent decades, the Lake Faguibine system has shrunk dramatically due to droughts, desertification and mismanagement. Its floodplain has narrowed from more than 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles) to about 90 km2 (34 mi2) in 2010.

These repeated shocks have unraveled communities, battered local economies and propelled people out of desert areas.

They have also left an imprint on Kel Tamasheq food habits. Until the 1970s, the community was mostly producing for self-consumption, but in recent decades its dependence on markets has grown.

“In this community, regular consumption of cereals and other market products signifies helplessness,” the FAO report noted, a testament to the inadequacy of their food production system. Production for the market has also increased agropastoralism.

Discussion group with community participants in Aratène. Image © RPPS.

Selling animals is the last resort for community members in times of trouble. Mitta said they sell their animals in the markets to pay for the food they buy there.

“People are changing the way they are living because of climatic or natural changes, environmental degradation, or political insecurity,” Clarisse Umutoni at the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Niger, who has studied transhumance in Mali, told Mongabay.

The nomadism itself has taken on a different form. Earlier, Umutoni said, entire families and groups would move; women, children and elderly included. Today, only the men undertake the seasonal migrations, leaving their families in more permanent settlements where they can practice agriculture.

Another compelling reason is political pressure to send children to school to receive government-sanctioned education. Most Kel Tamasheq, who are followers of Islam, have traditional educators within their communities who impart religious teachings.

Health is another factor. Ancient traditions haven’t always served all members of the community. It was really difficult for vulnerable people in the family, especially women and children, Umutoni said. “They didn’t have access to education and health facilities.” A 2021 study found that among Mali’s nomadic pastoralists, including the Kel Tamasheq, lack of transport and costliness was a major reason people did not make use of health care facilities. For one settlement considered in the study, the closest local hospital was 40 km (25 mi) away, and for another, it was 20 km (12 mi).

Political instability and intense conflict over land

The disappearance of natural resources and severing from ancient ways of life has fed into political instability in the wider region. The Tuareg peoples living in Algeria, Niger and Libya have for centuries aspired for an autonomous state. A rebellion that flared in Niger in the 1990s swept up Tuareg communities in Mali too. In 2012 it came to a head when a Tuareg movement called the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) and armed Islamist groups attacked Malian government forces in the north of the country, going on to declare an independent state of Azawad. They later entered a cease-fire with the government, but the brokered peace didn’t last, and the conflict continues today.

Thanks to these years of instability, the Tuareg population is now even more widely dispersed within Mali and across the region.

In Mali itself, the fracture between the northern nomadic and pastoralist peoples and the southern agriculturalists runs deep, with the Saharan dwellers decrying their marginalization. Amid the environmental degradation, the northern nomads are forced to rely increasingly on water and pastureland in the south, intensifying friction with settled farmers there.

Animal herds are often seen as a menace to crops and can spark violent confrontations between the two groups. This is one reason why some pastoralists have allied with armed groups, to protect their cattle from these attacks, Umutoni said. “Conflicts are increasing daily. We can expect the worst if serious action is not taken to resolve these conflicts.”

Pastoralist food system of the Kel Tamasheq people in Aratène, Mali. Image courtesy of Global Hub On Indigenous Peoples Food System via Flickr.

No one owns the land among the Kel Tamasheq, but interdependent groups recognize traditional rights to water sources and grazing lands. Mali has national laws enshrining their rights to these critical resources and recognizing their role in preserving their environment. But on the ground, these legal securities are falling short, especially when pastoralists are increasingly pushed up against farming communities where land rights are better defined and enforced.

Efforts to improve conditions in their Saharan homeland are also complicated. In 2008, the Malian government partnered with the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) to restore the Lake Faguibine ecosystem. It was supposed to help about 200,000 people, primarily nomads. The project failed, mainly due to the deterioration of the security situation since 2011.

In recent years, Mali’s national politics has descended into chaos. The country witnessed two successive coups in 2020 and this year. The country still doesn’t have a democratic government, with military leaders promising democratic elections next year.

These dramatic shifts in their ecological and political landscape have left even these resilient desert-hardened nomadic communities unmoored. “When someone moves out of his own zone, he will always have problems,” Mitta said. “When you are an outsider, you always have problems.”


FAO and Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. 2021. Indigenous Peoples’ food systems: Insights on sustainability and resilience in the front line of climate change. Rome. doi:10.4060/cb5131en

Sangare, M., Coulibaly, Y. I., Coulibaly, S. Y., Dolo, H., Diabate, A. F., Atsou, K. M., . . . Diop, S. (2021). Factors hindering health care delivery in nomadic communities: A cross-sectional study in Timbuktu, Mali. BMC Public Health, 21(1). doi:10.1186/s12889-021-10481-w

Umutoni, C., & Ayantunde, A. A. (2018). Perceived effects of transhumant practices on natural resource management in southern Mali. Pastoralism, 8(1). doi:10.1186/s13570-018-0115-7

Banner image: Livestock in Aratène, Mali. Image © RPPS.