Conflict over land and resources in Mali is rooted in the country’s colonial past. Before colonization by the French, communities enjoyed codified rights for centuries under empires spanning much of present-day Mali. After Mali fell to French colonial rule in 1892, the French declared all “unproductive lands” to be under the control of the state, under the pretense of increasing productivity. Communities were dispossessed of their land. State ownership continued in postcolonial Mali, fueling conflict over communities’ customary claims.
In 1990, Mali began a process of decentralization to allow communities to assert their tenure rights, culminating in the Land Reform Act in 2006. The Act aims to address insecure tenure and resolve the longstanding conflicts over land that have fuelled armed conflict. The Act recognizes communities’ customary rights and seeks to inventory customary rights and use throughout the country. It establishes the first village-level land commissions to address land-related conflict.
The 2006 Agricultural Orientation Law (Loi d’Orientation Agricole), which establishes the foundation of land governance in Mali, reflects the government’s ambition to make the country an agricultural powerhouse in the region. Despite the government’s efforts, natural resources and land governance remained centralized, with overlapping statutory and customary rights that result in frequent land conflicts. Migration from the north and large-scale land acquisitions exacerbated land conflicts and tenure insecurity throughout the country. These conflicts fueled the armed conflict and insurgencies that plagued Mali in the past decade and local conflicts that continue to hamper development, feed unrest, and imperil community livelihoods.
In 2012, a military coup toppled the government and a military junta took power. Shortly after, Tuareg rebels took control of much of the country’s north, including the historic city of Timbuktu. Conflict between the central government and insurgent groups continued until the United Nations established a peacekeeping mission to stabilize the country and achieve national political dialogue and reconciliation. In 2015, the Government of Mail and the Tuareg rebels signed the Accord for Peace and Reconciliation. However, while the accord addresses longstanding political grievances, it failed to recognize the role conflict over land has played in destabilizing the country and eroding trust between communities and the central government.
Recent legal and policy developments offer a new opportunity to create solutions to weak land governance and to alleviate the threats it poses to national security and to the wellbeing of local communities. The 2013 Agricultural Land Policy and the 2017 Agricultural Land Law both contain innovative provisions for land governance at the local level, including considerations for smallholders and pastoralists. Unfortunately, large-scale land acquisitions are exacerbating land conflicts and tenure insecurity throughout the country.
The Tenure Facility’s pilot project, which ended in 2017, pioneered innovative approaches and tools for resolving tenure conflicts and encouraging collaborative natural resource management. The project capitalized on the opportunity to address land conflict in the aftermath of Mali’s civil war and contributed to achieving the 2015 Accord for Peace and Reconciliation. CNOP and HELVETAS organized and trained 17 local land commissions, established Mali’s first inter-communal forest, and facilitated a local multi-stakeholder dialogue on mining. The potential for scaling up is promising, and the project is generating knowledge that will inform the development of cornerstone laws for rural land rights in Mali.
To learn more about the pilot project, see below.