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Friday, 26 April, 2002, 15:10 GMT 16:10 UK
Mali's golden hope
Boy ploughing the fields in Mali
Farming the land is an uphill battle
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By Briony Hale
BBC News Online business reporter

Mali has occupied an almost permanent position amongst the list of the 10 poorest countries in the world.

Some countries only appear at the bottom of the heap for a certain time and these have usually been ravaged by war or natural disasters such as Afghanistan or Bangladesh.

Mali's poverty
Two thirds of people live in poverty
Infant mortality
Life expectancy
source: UN

The West African state of Mali is neither war-torn nor has it been plagued by flash floods or earthquakes.

It is poor because there is almost nothing there to drive an economy - no coastline to attract tourists, too little rain for substantial agriculture and very limited natural resources to export.

Now, the development of gold mines has raised the glimmer of hope that there could be better times ahead.

Vast emptiness

Most of Mali consists of nothing: 60% of its vast land mass - more than twice the size of France - is covered by the Sahara desert.

Mebe, a Fulani girl in northern Mali
French francs, the former currency, are now used as jewellery
The huge amount of desert in Mali is reflected by gross domestic product of just $2.3bn, a quarter of the size of neighbouring Ivory Coast and over 15 times smaller than Nigeria.

And the desert is pushing further and further south, eating up previously fertile ground.

The expansion of the desert has desperate implications in a country where 80% of the workforce is employed in farming or fishing.

Almost all agricultural activity is concentrated around the Niger river, the country's lifeline.

But in the ancient city of Timbuktu, there is a sand-filled furrow where the Niger river was flowing just 30 years earlier.

Touareg man making tea in the Sahara
Living conditions in the desert are getting tougher
Numerous charities and government schemes are trying to set up irrigation systems, but many already know they are fighting a losing battle.

Furthermore, 10% of the population is nomadic and largely dependent on livestock.

The task of cattle herders is getting gradually harder as they drive their cattle through the semi-desert for days in search of food and water.

Beyond recognition

Heading to the very south of the country is one of the only ways to ensure the animals' survival during the long dry season.

Driving along the solitary long straight road from the north to the south of the country, the landscape changes beyond almost all recognition as the shades of brown turn to green.

Trucks through the desert
Mali's infrastructure is very underdeveloped
It is here that cotton, Mali's biggest crop export, is cultivated and exported.

It is also in the south that the gold mines are finally being developed after geologists estimated the country had enormous potential for gold discoveries.

A number of new mines were opened in 2001, doubling previous production and ranking Mali as Africa's third largest gold producer after South Africa and Ghana.

The international mining firm, Anglogold, holds the majority stake in the largest two mines, but the Malian government also has a 20% share.

Aid dependent

Mali's gold revolution is a major coup for the country, and the first glimmer of new economic hope the country has seen for years.

But it will do little to help the plight of the nomads and the villagers living further north.

Touaregs in the Sahara desert
Desertification threatens Timbuktu's existence
For the foreseeable future the country will remain heavily dependent on foreign aid and the pay packets of emigrants working abroad.

Fortunately for Mali, its relative political stability and a good working relationship with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has made it popular with aid donors.

And a significant proportion of eldest sons can find work in Ivory Coast, where they can generate enough cash to keep the extended family going back home.

Mali's plight could not be more different to Ivory Coast, where significant rainfalls have created a vibrant economy that has seen that nation become the financial capital of West Africa.


As a result of the new gold mines, Mali's GDP is projected to grow by 9.3% in 2002.

Ivory Coast's tower block in Abidjan
Neighbouring Ivory Coast is a different world
That compares to just 1.5% growth in 2001 - a contraction in real terms due to the growing population.

But the sudden spurt of growth speaks more of the lack of other components in Mali's economy, rather than a tribute to the amount of gold actually being produced.

The World Bank has already warned of Mali's extreme sensitivity to external shocks, with cotton and gold now making up more than four-fifths of all its exports.

It leaves the whole country exposed to price fluctuations of these commodities in the international marketplace.

Mali, one of the poorest of poor nations, is still looking frighteningly vulnerable.

See also:

15 Apr 02 | Africa
Timbuktu - city of legends
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