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It is a much debated question: why did Central African forests become partially fragmented between 2,500 and 2,000 years ago, leaving room for more open forest landscapes and savannah? Recently, a publication attempted to explain that it was the farming Bantu peoples who were responsible for this, through the large-scale clearing that they undertook. But several IRD experts and their partners( 1) contest this argument in Science magazine. The fragmentation of the Central African forest was the result of drastic climate change. In fact, during this period a phase of general desiccation spread from the equatorial region right to the edges of the Sahel. Numerous data show that it was only 500 years later, in other words some 2,000 years ago, that Bantu colonisation became widespread. The first Bantu populations therefore merely took advantage of the opening up of the forest to enter these areas and start growing their crops.
The desert locusts are back in Mali and Niger. The FAO warned the two countries of new plagues during the summer of 2012. This "curse of the rains" threatens their crops and their food security. It may also however have hitherto unidentified long-term socio-economic consequences. A team representing the IRD and its partners(
1) recently revealed the severe impact of the major plagues of 1987-89 on the education of children in Malian villages affected at the time. School enrolment rates fell by 25 % to less than 18 %. Girls were particularly affected, leaving the classrooms at an even younger age than boys. The phenomenon is ascribed to a shortage of food following the destruction of the harvests by the locusts. This affects educational achievement, results in a fall in income of parents dependent on agriculture, which may in turn lead them to withdraw their children from schools.
These results are clearly disturbing in the current context of a new threat posed by locusts in Mali and Niger. The proliferation of insects is compounded by a political conflict that hampers anti-locust measures.
The rate of primary education across the world has increased remarkably during the last decade, rising from 82% in 1999 to 88% in 2008, according to Unesco. The countries with the lowest education rates, in Sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia, are also those who have demonstrated the largest increases. Beyond these figures, researchers have been questioning the reality in terms of inequalities and their reduction, and have shown that they have not yet disappeared. Two studies in Dakar have demonstrated this. They have provided a clearer picture of the consequences of the changes observed in Senegal, where an increasing number of girls are starting school, but remain less likely to proceed to secondary education than boys. The research has also underlined the boom in private education, now closing the gap with public schools: this is particularly the case for denominational private schools, with a success rate of almost 90% for the end-of-primary certificate, as opposed to just over 50% in the public sector.
The democratisation of primary schools has ushered in new educational norms and does not necessarily mean equal opportunities.
Lake Chad used to be one of the biggest lakes in the world, but its volume has been reduced to a tenth of what it was in the 1960s. The way this lake has dried up has become a symbol of climate change in action. It’s true that the lake’s water level has always changed, but this hasn’t diminished the major changes to the lifestyle of the inhabitants of the lake’s shoreline. Yet, as demonstrated by a French-Nigerian team including the IRD( 1), lake dwellers have made the best of these changes to their environment. Formerly fishermen or herdsmen, they have become farmers, often growing for export. The land that was part of the lake has made it possible for them to develop highly productive crops such as corn, rice and cowpea. In the valley of the Komadugu Yobe River in Niger, they have even commenced the intensive farming of peppers, which is highly lucrative although risky.
Rewatering the lake, as proposed by the Ubangi( 5) international project, would cause upheaval once again to the farming system, particularly if the yearly rise and fall in lake water levels were to cease.
Since the early 2000s the Sahara has come back strongly into the international political and media arena. The whole region is going through a period of turbulence stemming from its growing economic and strategic importance and a highly confused geopolitical environment. This situation stems from the “Arab spring” events, the fall of Colonel Gaddafi and the installation of Al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali.
A special issue of the journal Hérodote has published review articles on these upheavals by IRD geographers and economists and their and their research partners. Beyond the geopolitical and security aspects, they describe the economic changes, the development of the trans-Saharan migrations and the race for raw materials pursued by the world’s great powers. All these powers seek the underground wealth the region conceals (such as oil, uranium, iron). Simultaneously coveted and feared, the Sahara never ceases to arouse concern in the international community.