As violent incidents between animal breeders and sedentary farmers soar across northern and eastern Burkina Faso, the Ministry of Animal Resources has been holding a series of workshops for the two groups, alongside community leaders, local governors and mayors.
The Ministry estimates some 600 conflicts occur each year involving the death of pastoralists, farmers or government workers, the destruction of farms or houses and the injury or death of animals. According to Edithe Vokouma, director of pastoralist affairs in the Ministry, some 55 people have been killed in 4,000 recorded clashes over the past four years, with cases rising year on year.
"It is very serious," said Jérémie Ouedraogo, minister of animal resources in the capital, Ouagadougou. "How can we come to a place where we can use our natural resources together without resorting to conflict? This is the goal we hope to reach."
The most recent recorded case occurred in June in Tapoa in East Region, a largely agro-pastoralist zone where herders attacked the dwellings of forestry agents after a herder was arrested for cutting leaves from a tree to feed his animals, according to Bertin Somda, governor of East Region.
Livestock are an economic mainstay for many families across Burkina Faso, with 80 percent of rural families keeping at least one or two animals to fall back on during hard times. "They act much like a bank account," said Ouedraogo.
Why clashes up
As in much of the Sahel, conflict arises when farmers have encroached on transhumance paths, leading herders to move onto agricultural land to enable their animals to feed. Competition over scarce agricultural land is also mounting as the population grows by 3.1 percent per year, one of the highest rates in the world.
Land scarcity has also been accentuated by land-grabbing by agro-businesses following new land laws that encourage private land ownership; and by the growth of artisanal gold miners who both squeeze herders off transhumance routes but also poison water points with chemicals. Some 800 artisanal mining sites have opened since 2007.
Many of the clashes in the northern Sahel region fall along ethnic divides between Fulani herders and Mossi farmers.
According to Hassan Barry, president of the Association Tabital Pulaaku, which has worked on mediation since 2010 in high-risk areas across the country, (including Zoundweogo and Nahouri in South-Central Region, Gourma and Kompienga in East Region, Sissili and Ziro in Central-West Region, and Poni and Noumbiel in Southwest Region), conflicts started to become more violent in the early 2000s, a turning-point occurring in 2003 in Balere in East Region, when 10 herders were killed by locals following conflicts over destruction of their crops.
The arrival of 35,000 Malian refugees from the north, most of them pastoralists, is not significantly exacerbating these tensions at the moment said government officials, as pasture remains abundant following the rainy season. However, should tens of thousands more refugees arrive in the wake of military intervention in the north, tensions could rise.
The key is prevention, said Barry.
"It is difficult to bring an end to conflict once it has begun. To prevent conflicts from escalating into bloody confrontations between different groups - or even worse, ethnic clashes between people who attend the same mosques, the same markets, who bury their dead together - is very important," he stressed.
Most conflicts arise out of a misunderstanding, on both sides, of land regulations and rules that protect both agricultural land and transhumance paths, he noted.
Understanding has diminished as many pastoralists now send their children (many of whom are illiterate and unaware of the rules) to mind the animals. ''When we were kids there were fewer conflicts because herders were knowledgeable and respectful men,” Barry explained.
Problems often occur at night when animals wander off to graze while farmers are asleep, said Somda.
Under discussion at the workshops are: land regulation; why it is important to protect nomadic paths; and how both farmers and pastoralists or agro-pastoralists can work together to sustainably use natural resources.
Local officials will also encourage farmers and pastoralists to agree on transhumance paths together, to make agreements more binding.
While most conflicts are sorted out by community leaders, a minority are sent to local courts, which need more support to clear cases, said Hassan, as cases may languish for years, keeping community tensions boiling.
He recommends a special court be set up to manage tensions over natural resources to clear outstanding cases; and that a corps of special offices be set up in each municipality to map sites, monitor livestock trails and prevent and settle conflicts.
But to move forward, all groups must also learn how to use limited natural resources more efficiently, said Ouedragogo, noting some 110,000 hectares of forest is cut down each year in Burkina Faso, much of it for commercial purposes, but also to feed animals.
Ouedragogo said the Ministry of Natural resources is trying to encourage herders to store some grass at the end of each harvest so they rely less on wild grass and trees. The Ministry of Animal Resources says it will fund projects that help pastoralists and farmers to harvest six million hay-bales to be stored across the country this year, and will invest US$7 million over several years, to create more water points, reservoirs and holding areas for animals.
But Barry says not enough money goes into protection or promotion of herders: Government spend on livestock was roughly 1.13 percent as of 2005 (more recent figures are not available), despite the sector bringing in 18 percent of GDP and making up a quarter of exports.
Unless more is invested in both herders' needs and to make agriculture more productive, agricultural land will just continue to grow and clashes continue to mount, warned Vokouma from the Ministry of Natural Resources.