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The “Masters of the River” fight back

18 September 2018

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  • 2018

The “Masters of the River” fight back

Small cooperative in southwestern Mali struggles with climate change and pollution from gold digging. A fishing project mitigates the hardship for the vulnerable community

“Life has improved considerably with the fishing ponds”, says Mohamed Kominé.

He is chairman of a cooperative of 107 Bozo fisherfolks near the river Bale, just west of Yanfolila in southwestern Mali.

He points in the direction of four large fresh-water fishing ponds that are full of tilapia fish and explains that the ponds are a steady source of income for the Bozo community.

Renowned fishing people the Bozos are also called the “Masters of the river”, the Niger River, that is. They started moving south some 20 years ago due to falling water levels in the Niger River.

Tragically they have now encountered the very same problem in the Yanfolila region: Water levels have fallen drastically because of prolonged periods of drought.

On top of that the fisherfolks are exposed to strong pollution from intensive gold digging in the area.

Fish simply cannot survive in the rivers around Yanfolila any longer.

The ponds

Therefore, it was decided to construct the fishing ponds that produce about one ton of tilapaia each month. This generates an average of 1.5 million CFA to the cooperative to the benefit of the 75 Bozo families living in 12 villages around Yanfolila.

Though the ponds enhance the living conditions for the Bozo community and the surrounding population, that enjoys access to fresh fish, the cooperative is concerned about the intense pollution from the massive gold-digging in the region. The problem seems to get worse day by day.

The culprits are large companies from Canada, Australia, South Africa, and now also from China, together with thousands of “private” gold diggers coming from all over Mali and neighboring countries. The diggers are mainly young men that dream of making a quick fortune.

Most of them leave again, empty-handed, many with serious health problems from inhaling and touching the highly toxic mercury, that is used to wash the gold.

The gold diggers

Mr. Kominé reveals that the region is an outright gold rush area like the historical Klondike in Canada. There are powerful companies with tight-knit contracts with the Malian state. They are the greatest polluters.

Next to the companies’ “official” mines work tens of thousands private diggers in deep, unsafe and unprotected holes.

Big or small gold-diggers all use the same poisonous mercury, also known as “quicksilver” to wash the gold.

Mr. Kominé says: “It is dangerous here. They are too many diggers, and even if we tried to convince them to stop digging they would not listen. They might even shoot us”.

Amadou Konate, who is the president of the NGO Pachindha, supervising the fishing pond project, backs up Mr. Kominé’s statement and says that “the situation is very complex. In reality it can only be solved at government level. We are lobbying the Ministry of Agriculture and have asked them to find a lasting solution”.

Mr. Kominé adds: “In the cooperative we try to discourage our brothers in the Bozo community to dig gold here, but it is very difficult. It is easy to fall for a dream of a quick fortune, so some of our youngsters do indeed dig gold”.

Rivers polluted from gold washing

Six young Bozo men are employed by a gold-mining company, but in general four out of five young people move to Bamako, Guinea or Ivory Coast to find jobs. Some have taken the dangerous path of migration up to the Mediterranean. Two are currently in Spain.

The state

Ibrahim Togola, President of Mali Folkecenter, who is initiator of a nation-wide program covering the fishing project says that the ponds in Yanfolila does indeed alleviate some of the vulnerability of the Bozo community.

But he adds that it is only a local narrow consolation:

“The Malian state ought to take the over-all responsibility and make plans to control the gold mining and to fight climate change. If the fishing ponds were run by the state it would have a lot more impact”, says Mr. Togola.

The fishers in the cooperative share a dream of extending their tilapia business and create a real fish market next to the bridge over the Bale River that a Chinese consortium is constructing.

A man from the cooperative explains: “When the bridge is finished we could make stalls next to it. As of now there are none. Women could sell fish to passers-by. This is the bozo tradition: men fish, women sell. At the same time a small visitors’ area on the banks of the river with a fish restaurant could be created”, he adds.

The fish pond project in Yanfolila is part of Mali Folkecenter’s policy of helping local communities to manage risks from climate change and to adapt to these negative developments. Concurrently income-generating activities are introduced aiming at self-reliance for the local communities.


The fishing ponds by Yanfolila are just one of 25 similar income-generating projects and climate-change adaption and mitigation projects all over Mali, known by the French acronyms PIL-ADCC. In English: “Project of Local Initiatives for Sustainable Adaptation to the Effects of Climate Change on Vulnerable Rural Communities in Mali”.

The NGO Pachindha that supervises the project stands for “Pôle des Actions d’Integration des Droits Humains en Afrique”.

The programme is an element of Mali Folkecenter’s cooperation with the Swedish government. Over four years 42.5 million Swedish Kroner (or about 5 million US dollars), are channeled through the 130 members nation-wide umbrella organization RESO-Climat Mali to the various projects.

The bulk of the Bozo community in Mali dwell along the banks of the river Niger where they founded cities like Mopti and Djenné centuries ago.

There are no official statistics as to how numerous the Bozos of Mali are, but in a recent book on the Malian crisis (“La Tragedie Malienne” by Patrick Gonin et al.) the authors estimate that Bozos represent less that 2 % of the Malian population. According to the CIA factbook for Mali for 2017, the Malian population is a bit less than 18 million people, meaning that the Bozos would be fewer than 360,000 people.

“Klondike” refers to the most famous “gold rush” in history: “The Klondike Gold Rush (From Wikipedia): was a migration by an estimated 100,000 prospectors to the Klondike region of the Yukon in north-western Canada between 1896 and 1899. Gold was discovered there by local miners on August 16, 1896, and, when news reached Seattle and San Francisco the following year, it triggered a stampede of prospectors. Some became wealthy, but the majority went in vain.”

This is the first in a series of articles about Mali Folkecenter activities in the south-western part of Mali. Read about gold-digging here:

Read about struggles between herders and farmers here