The Djenné Project is a Cultural Survival research and advocacy initiative that has demonstrated serious flaws in plans to build a large dam at Talo, Mali, along the Bani River. Responding to local and international concerns, in 2001 Cultural Survival commissioned a study by an expert team from the International Development Office at Clark University in Massachusetts. The report, completed in 2000, revealed that the Talo Dam would be detrimental to the natural environment with likely devastating affects on 20,000 downstream farmers, fisher peoples and other residents. Inadequate annual flooding caused by the dam could also lead to the destruction of the Djenné Mosque, the largest adobe structure in the world, which relies on the flood waters for annual application of the adobe plastering that waterproofs the entire exterior.
The African Development Bank (AfDB), the primary funder of the dam, affirmed the concerns cited by the report and in February 2001 placed a moratorium on construction to allow further study. The bank affirmed in recent correspondence that construction on the dam is still suspended and discussions are underway between the Malian Ministry of Rural Development and affected communities. Recognizing that the project presents issues that are as much socio-political as they are environmental, the government is apparently working with local communities to find a consensual solution, and hopes to get back to the AfDB with proposed solutions by the end of 2002. The government had previously been unsupportive, and rejected the Clark Report findings but failed to provide an adequate response to the five main issues raised therein: 1) the lack of participation and public acceptance of the dam by residents living downstream in the town of Djenné, 2) the need for an additional Environmental Impact Assessment to better explore potential adverse affects, 3) the need for fair monitoring and accountability by all stakeholders, not just direct beneficiaries, 4) the need for a cost-benefit analysis taking into consideration downstream effects, and 5) the importance of the governmental protection provision related to the status of the Djenné Mosque as a UNESCO-designated World Heritage site.
Two members of the Clark team, Lisa Meierotto and Robyn Fink, spent summer 2002 in Mali conducting follow-up research. Meierotto researched the status of advocacy efforts conducted by Cultural Survival over the last two years. She sought to measure the awareness level among people in Djenné about the dam, and the impact the Clark Report had in the Djenné region. Preliminary results show the majority of people in Djenné are opposed to the dam, but have been poorly informed about the surrounding issues. The Clark Report had not yet been disseminated widely due to a delay in translation. Meierotto developed links between Cultural Survival and Clark University and local people and institutions. Through this network, Cultural Survival and Clark University could more easily disseminate information about the dam. Better access to information could cultivate more participation among people living near the dam site.
One aspect of Meirerotto’s research was the opportunity to uncover a broad spectrum of perspectives and opinions on the dam. For example, a local high school teacher was cynical about Djenné residents’ opposition to the dam. He said that while the majority of people in Djenné are against the dam at Talo, they would strongly support it if the AfDB moved it to Djenné—then, he said, the people downstream in Mopti would protest. The teacher believes the dam would actually be beneficial to Djenné—that great amounts of water are “lost” each year in the floods. For example, last year floods were so strong they destroyed many millet fields. He also believes that a steady flow of water would provide year-round employment for the population and eliminate the months of unemployment during the dry season.
Another local man pulled Meierotto aside to vent his frustration about anti-dam sentiment. Baba, the owner of a popular low-cost hotel, Chez Baba, is pro-dam, and asked Meierotto to spread his message: “Look at the people here. What are they doing? Sleeping! If the dam is built, we will have water all year round. People can have gardens with tomatoes and onions.” He concurs that the majority of the city is against the dam; but he believes that they aren’t educated on the “real issues.”
Other locals are adamantly opposed to the dam. “Water [flow] already comes late and there is not enough of it for the rice fields,” said Papa Cissé, president of Djenné Patrimoine, a local non-governmental organization. “The Djenné population knows only rice. Already the ground is cracked [due to late rains] and fields are smaller. With the dam, water will decrease even more and this will negatively affect the Djenné population.”
The effect of the dam on fish is clearly a major concern among local people. Fish consumption is a major component of the local diet, and is also linked to many cultural traditions. For Bozo fisher people it is their main subsistence strategy, and most people of all ethnic groups have a strong dependence on healthy fish populations to meet nutritional needs.
During Fink’s three months in the Circle of Djenné which includes the town of Djenné and surrounding communities, she concentrated her baseline study of agriculture on the Bozo fisher peoples. Her research team consisted of a local assistant, who was a Bozo fisherman, and a French student from the National Agricultural Engineering School in Clermont-Ferrand, France. The team conducted 65 interviews in 20 villages in the Djenné Circle and five Bozo fishing camps.
The team attempted to quantify seasonal gain, seasonal profits, materials used and how many fishermen fished together. Additionally, the interviews encompassed qualitative questions to help the team understand Bozo fishing techniques, the fishermen’s formal and informal rules and regulations, and how they view their work and the ecosystem within which they work. The research team also interviewed stakeholders, including the president of the local fishing cooperative, government officials, and organizations associated with fishing, permitting a comprehensive understanding of the area’s fishing culture. Fink’s study will provide predictions of how the proposed Talo Dam could affect the Bozo fishing population in the Circle of Djenné. She will use environmental modeling and Geographic Information Sciences to map potential outcomes.
At the end of the summer, Meierotto and Fink met with Cultural Survival staff and came to the following conclusions about actions Cultural Survival will take in its advocacy efforts:
1) Develop relationships with local stakeholders and request their input regarding Cultural Survival’s continuing participation in the dam controversy.
2) Disseminate more broadly the French version of the Clark Report in to local NGOs and associations, as well as to other Talo Dam stakeholders, such as local government officials and reporters.
3) Continue communication with the AfDB to better understand the approval status of the Talo Dam project.
4) Due to the spectrum of different levels of opposition to and support for the construction of the dam, continue to encourage the government of Mali, the AFDB, and local institutions to better engage local people in discussions about the proposed dam.
5) Encourage the government of Mali, the AfDB, and local institutions to conduct further studies as recommended in the Clark Report.
Cultural Survival remains convinced that any additional research that considers the full zone of impact (the project area as well as downstream effects), will further demonstrate that projected costs of the dam, as currently conceived, far outweigh any potential benefits.
Lisa Meierotto and Robyn Fink are candidates for master’s degrees in international development, community, and environment from Clark University.