Mali’s Land Deal With the Devil

Letter from Markala

Farmer Bintou Samake plants beans while carrying her son at a farm in Heremakono, Mali, January 22, 2013. Joe Penney / Reuters

Malian farmer Balima Coulibaly and his fellow villagers could do nothing but watch as Libyan investors, under a deal known as Malibya, took the fertile land that they had farmed for generations. The agreement had moved forward without any discussion of what impact the transfer would have on the impoverished communities living on the land.

"We don't know what will happen to us," said Coulibaly, an aging local leader, sitting on the floor of a sweltering mud house. He lives in Sangha, a village with a population of a few hundred. There, children tie plastic bags to their feet in place of shoes, and everyone lives in mud and straw houses amid the sprawling millet fields. It is one of several communities located inside the Malibya concession.

An advertisement for the Malibya project. Chris Arsenault / Thomson Reuters Foundation

In 2008, oil-rich Libya, under the leadership of the late Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, signed a 50-year, renewable lease for the land with Mali's government. In his heyday, Qaddafi invested hundreds of millions across Africa. The main government office complex in Bamako was built entirely with Libyan funds, and Qaddafi’s government once controlled the finest hotels in Mali. But Malibya was one of Africa's largest and most secretive foreign agricultural investment deals.

Thomson Reuters Foundation obtained an undated copy of the contract and found that Mali had offered the entire 100,000 hectares to Libya free of charge, water rights included, on the condition that it would invest in irrigation systems and other agricultural infrastructure to grow rice and cultivate cattle. According to poster ads seen around the area, developers were to receive only 25,000 hectares.

The land in question is located in the Office du Niger, the agricultural heart of the West African country and responsible for much of the country’s food. With its comparatively lush trees and healthy herds of cattle, it seems worlds away from Mali's desert north. It is irrigated by a dam built by French colonialists in the 1930s and operates

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