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Sat Jan 22 17:31:49 EST 2000

The following is from The Oregonian, Jan. 18, 2000, p A10


Relentlessly, sand fills lives in Mali village

By NORIMITSU ONISHI, New York Times News Service

	ARAOUANE, Mali - The sand woman came out of the blackness of the
village master's house into the desert light, bearing a bowl of sand her
hands had scooped from the doorway and would deposit several feet away.
	It is a lifetime's work, this struggle against the sand, for Souda
Cissey and Araouane's other sand women - a daily contest to prevent the
Sahara from burying, once and for all, this ancient village in West
Africa. The world's largest desert has taken away a mosque and numerous
houses in recent yeas, some rooftops still are visible, others fallen
into the Sahara's seemingly bottomless pits.
	The sand women clear courtyards and doorways from dawn to dusk in
Araouane, a once-fabled oasis six days by camel north of Timbuktu, the
city at the desert's edge. and nine days south of the salt mines of
Taoudenni, a place so desolate and forbidding that political prisoners
once were left there and told they could dig for food and water or run
	But run where in the Sahara?
	The sand women work except on days when the wind is so strong that,
sweeping down from the eastern dunes, it blows over sand much faster
than they could clear it.
	"Now it's easier," Cissey said, looking at the ever-widening space
she had cleared before the entrance. "The further you get away from the
door, the easier it becomes. You have less to walk."
	The 30 families still here have resisted the forces that drove most
away: the disappearance of the trans-Saharan camel caravan, which once
served as the main method of trade with the African interior; the
desertification, which began with severe droughts in the early 1970s and
killed the shrubbery necessary to raise cattle; a rebellion against the
Malian government by desert nomads in the early 1990s, which doomed a
New Yorker's quixotic attempt to plant trees in Araouane.
	So today, dunes cresting at 40 feet surround this village about 160
miles north of Timbuktu. Smaller dunes have formed between the mud-brick
houses, which seem to be sinking deeper and deeper into the depressions.
Sand rises as high as the rooftops of many houses, whose owners clear
only the entrances. At houses belonging to people too weak or old to
clear the sand, or too poor to hire the sand women, the inhabitants must
step down from the sand into their homes.
	People are thought to have settled in Araouane before Timbuktu was
founded in the 11th century. The nomadic Berbers known as the Tuaregs
chose this spot because of its wells and grass for their cattle, said
Abdi Mohammed, iman of one of the three remaining mosques.
	The Moors, a people of mixed Berber and Arab descent, eventually
took over the area and brought Islam. They also brought slaves from the
south to take care of animals and perform other tasks in a rigid
hierarchy that survives to this day.

Staying behind
	As many as 3,000 people are thought to have lived here once,
Mohammed said. Now there are only a couple of hundred souls, who depend
entirely on passers-by or trips to Timbuktu for food.
	"The people who have decided to stay in Araouane will stay until the
end of their lives or until the end of the world," the iman said.
	For centuries, the village served as a stopping point on the camel
caravan trade centered in Timbuktu. Traders brought salt from the north
and exchanged it for gold from the African interior.
	Today the salt is almost worthless, though worth enough to lure
Araouane's young men to dig in the Taoudenni mines during the cool
season. Moorish or Tuareg traders leading caravans of 30 to 40 camels,
with each beast carrying four salt tablets weighing several hundred
pounds, pass through Araouane almost daily on their way to Timbuktu.
	Hamane Hilla, a irrepressibly cheerful man in his 70s, recalled how
he had dug in the Taoudenni mines until he was in his 50s, and his body
no longer could stand it.
	The Moors, who controlled the mines and remain Araouane's masters,
would advance the miners credit: The standard was less than $10 for five
months' work, he said.
	The miners worked six days a week for their bosses and were
permitted to keep the salt from the seventh day. Still, the Moors
deducted whatever food or water the miners consumed from their advances,
so the miners usually fell into debt, which sometimes took years to
	But things have improved, Hilla said. He son is digging in Taoudenni
now and has been promised more than $40 for four months' work.
	"I did not have his luck," Hilla said, smiling, his face turned away
from the wind. "I'm an old man now. I can't go to Taoudenni; I can't go
to Timbuktu. I can't do anything but go to the mosque and pray."
	It was on an aborted trip to Taoudenni in 1988 that an American
named Ernst Aebi, a surrealist painter from Manhattan, stumbled upon
Araouane. In his book, "Seasons of Sand" (Simon & Schuster, 1993), Aebi
wrote that after being struck by the village's wretchedness, he planted
trees to stop the Sahara, grew a communal garden, and built a school and
a hotel, which he called the Araouane Hilton.
	"We though the American had come to save us," said Chirach Hamma,
27, who learned French in the school.
	But the development coincided with a rebellion against the Malian
government by the Tuareg nomads. The Tuaregs and Moors, who had proved
the most resistant to Westernization under French colonialism, found
themselves marginalized after Mali's independence in 1960. The
descendants of their slaves, who had received French education, now
controlled the national government and were not particularly open to
their complaints.
	Tuareg rebels raided and destroyed villages in the Sahara. Peace
came in 1995, but only after the destruction of Aebi's projects.
	In the last couple of years, improvements have come to Araouane.
Italians built a school; the Red Cross, a dispensary.
	El Hadje Ahmed, 27, a nurse whom everyone refers to as the doctor,
arrived in October from his hometown, Timbuktu. The Red Cross regularly
sends supplies, though the locals continue to practice traditional
medicine, which includes the use of camel dung - stuffing nostrils with
it to fight colds and placing it against aching teeth.
	Ahmed's father, a doctor, had ordered him Araouane. But the young
man could not wait to leave.
	"I though Araouane was a great city," Ahmed said, slumped on the
porch of the dispensary. "I'd like to go back to Timbuktu to renew
myself, if only for one month. Go out dancing with my girlfriends.
	"I could never convince any of them to come here. They'll see
there's no dancing here, that all the women are covered. My girlfriends
wear short skirts, and they don't wear veils."
	He said he hated how the Sahara had left a permanent coat of fine
sand on his skin, how the grains found their way between his teeth and
into every meal he ate. He hated watching the sand women's Sisyphean
labor, the sand spilling back into the spaces they had cleared.
	"This place is hell," he said with finality.
	The sun had begun to set over Araouane, and the sand women were
collecting bags of rice or sugar, the equivalent of $1.60, that they are
paid for a day.
	One of them, Jnanbarka Handou Barik, is at least 50 but has never
set foot outside Araouane. "I don't know anything about Timbuktu," she
said, adding "I hope the wind doesn't come tomorrow so I can work."
	Alious Fatima Metou, the man whose doorway she had cleared, took in
the stillness of the air and predicted no wind on this night. He was
	But in the pre-dawn hours, before the muezzin roused the faithful
for the day's first prayer, the wind had stirred. Soon the sand flowed
gently from the eastern dunes, rustling by the houses and doorways all
over Araouane, no doubt awakening the sand women from their sleep.

	Experts point to poor agricultural practices, such as
overcultivation and overgrazing, as primary causes of desertification,
which can be worsened by drought conditions as well as periodic
	The international Convention to Combat Desertification, signed by
about 120 nations, aims to prevent the destruction of fragil drylands by
channeling foreign aid to communities that work to prevent overgrazing
and promot better water-use policies.
	The treaty has drawn attention in Africa, where more than 40 percent
of the land is considered only marginaly fertile for crops or grazing,
and an additional 27 percent is infertile.
	Meanwhie, a group of German researchers using a new climate-system
model said last summer that one of the most striking climate changes of
the past 11,000 years caused the Saharan and Arabian regions to turn
into deserts.
	The researchers said that subtle shifts in the Earth's orbit
initiated the desertification, and subsequent atmospheric and vegetation
changes amplified it. They said that North Africa's transformation to
desert began 5,440 years ago. Before then, annual grasses and low shrubs
covered the Sahara.


Here are some questions and answers about desertification:

Q. What is it?
A. It is the degradation of drylands. Experts say it is caused by
climate variability and human activities such as overcultivation,
overgrazing, deforestation and improper irrigation.
	Droughts are thought to intensify degradation caused by humans. Wars
and natural disasters such as floods can displace people, causing
refugees to overburden one area while they are forced to abandon
protective agricultural practices, such as terracing, in their home

Q. What are drylands?
A. They have limited freshwater supplies, and precipitation can vary
greatly during the year. Fluctuations also are seen during decades.
Plants and animals adapt to these cycles.

Q. What happens in desertification?
A. The land loses its resilience to climate changes. Soil, vegetation an
freshwater supplies eventually can recover from drought and overgrazing.
But when the vegetative cover is degraded, water and wind erosion
accelerate. Soil compaction and the accumulation of toxic substances
also put drylands at risk.
	Exposed and eroded topsoil can blow away. An example is the Dust
Bowl of the 1930s, when plows and farming practices designed for
temperate zones were used on marginal soils. Also, when soil is trampled
and compacted, it loses its ability to hold moisture and support plant
life. Inadequate drainage and improper irrigation can lead to
waterlogging during wet periods and salt buildup.

Q. What is the rate of desertification?
A. Estimating the extent is difficult, but the United National
Environmental Program estimates that of productive drylands, nearly 70
percent are threatened by desertification. That's about 25 percent of
the Earth's land. This area supports almost 900 million people. The Food
and Agriculture Organization asserts that each year, desertification is
rendered practically barren 17.3 million acres of formerly cultivable
drylands, about the size of Ireland.

Q. Can it be reversed?
A. There are four desertification classes: slight, moderate, several and
very severe. The classification depends on the effect degradation has
had on economic plant yield on croplands and rangelands. Slight,
moderate and severe degradation are considered reversible. Very severely
degraded land cannot be rehabilitated economically.

Q. What are the consequences of desertification?
A. Degraded land could cause downstream flooding, reduced water quality,
sedimentation in rivers and lakes, and siltation of reservoirs and
navigation channels. It can cause dust storms and air pollution.

Q. What are the costs?
A. The estimated annual cost of desertification, expressed as income
forgone, totals about $42 billion: $11 billion for irrigated land, $8
billion for rainfed cropland and $23 billion for rangeland.

Q. Are there efforts to halt desertification?
A. The international Convention to Combat Desertification, negotiated
under the auspices of the United Nations, entered into force Dec. 26,
1996. It has 120 signatories and has established a Committee on Science
and Technology.
	Under the convention, a group called the Conference of the Parties
meets at least annually to consider alternatives and progress. It last
met in November 1999 in Recife, Brazil and the next session is
tentatively planned for October in Bonn, Germany. Research areas
including climatology and meteorology, soil sciences, hydrology, botany,
zoology, ecology and the social sciences.

Q. What areas are considered most at risk?
A. The convention is focusing on areas of Africa, Asia, Latin America
and the Caribbean, and the northern Mediterranean.

-Two-thirds of the African continent is desert or drylands. Nearly
three-quarters of extensively agricultural drylands are degraded to some
degree. Severe desertification is seen in places such as Mail and Sudan.

-In Asia, of a total land area of 10.6 billion acres, there are 4.2
billion acres of dry subhumid, semiarid and arid land from the
Mediterranean to the Pacific. They include the sand dunes of Syria, the
eroded mountain slopes of Nepal and the deforested highlands of Laos.

-Latin America and the Caribbean are home to rain forests, but they also
are about a quarter desert and drylands.

-Much of the northern Mediterranean, from Turkey to Portugal, is semi-
arid and subject to climate variations. Desertification is linked to
poor agricultural practices that have caused the soil to become
salinized, dry and unproductive.

Sources: United Nationals Development Program; Convention to Combat
Desertification; Center for International Earth Science Information
Network, Columbia University: "A Review of the Desertification
Convention," by Kyle W. Danish, Indiana University School of Law.

COMMENT BY POSTER: deforestation remains a major problem in the decline
of soils, soil loss from wind, and decreased agriculture production

Posted as a courtesy by
Daniel B. Wheeler

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