From fish to sand: What changing livelihoods mean for the environment and conflict in Koulikoro, Mali

In Koulikoro, 50 kilometres from Mali’s capital and largest city Bamako, one of the main livelihoods characterising the region just a few years ago has changed from fishing to sand extraction.

As fish catches plummeted – due in part to climate change and overfishing – a lot of the local Bozo people who live and fish along the Niger river have had to leave their villages in search of work. Some have become ‘pêcheurs de sable’ (sand fishers), extracting sand from the river for use in the construction industry.

This growing industry is not without its consequences, particularly for what remains of the fishing communities who share the same waters. Competition between these apparently incompatible uses of the river has led to increasing tensions between fishers and sand extractors, with the lack of regulation of the burgeoning industry a major cause of grievance.

Environmental pressures

The effects of climate change on the Niger basin are increasingly felt in the form of higher temperatures, increased variability and intensity of rainfall, soil erosion, desertification and recurrent extreme events. Combined with the building of dams, increased water abstraction, water pollution, changes in river flows and increased siltation, this has led to real damage to fish stocks in the river – and a decrease in fish catches.[1]

Fishing is one of the main sources of income for people living along the Niger river. The fisheries provide 285,000 jobs – of which 70,000 are fishers – and represent 7.2% of the national labour force.[2] These fishers have little freedom of movement within the delta to help them cope with the environmental changes.[3]

This is why in places like Koulikoro, not far from the booming urban centre of Bamako, the poor benefits from fishing have led some fishers to resort to sand and gravel extraction – even though it is hard and physical work. Sand divers harvest wet compact sand and gravel from the bottom of waterways, using pirogues (long, narrow canoes) to transport it ashore. Here, it will be loaded into trucks and used for bricks, concrete mix and tiling.

This lucrative opportunity has become more and more attractive for some traditional fishers, with higher prices commanded by sand compared with fish and a greater year-round predictability offered by sand as opposed to the seasonal availability of fish. The practice is growing exponentially to satisfy the construction boom in Bamako (with a slowdown in 2012 due to the country’s economic and political crisis).

Sand extraction has therefore become extremely important for the local economy and provides jobs for thousands, including Bozo fishers, generating large revenues for local municipalities. Around 15,000 people now depend directly or indirectly on the sand extraction industry according the main transport trade union.[4]

Fuelling conflict and tension

The high volume and rapidity of sand extraction is not without its environmental and social consequences, however. The process of extracting sand disrupts the riverbed, which has negative cascading effects on fish reproduction and yields, as it destroys the fish spawning grounds and degrades the riverbanks. Scientific research has shown that, combined with reduced sediment supply due to the presence of upstream dams, sand extraction is responsible for the deepening of the upper parts of the Niger riverbed.[5] Moreover, unregulated extraction of sand from flood-prone riverbanks diminishes natural flood defences and leaves riverside communities more exposed.

Along the banks of the Niger, relations between fishers and sand extractors are therefore becoming increasingly strained, and in some cases have become violent. Anecdotal accounts from community members tell of violence erupting over the negative impacts sand extraction has had on local villages, grazing lands and roads. Indeed, the negative environmental impacts of uncontrolled sand extraction are numerous, from destruction of landscape, collapsing riverbanks, reduction of farm and grazing land, deforestation and water pollution.

Yet members of the same communities also see the benefits in switching from fishing or herding livestock to the more predictable and profitable livelihood of sand and gravel extraction.

Peaceful development

To defend their interests, sand extractors have organised themselves through a dedicated trade union, Syndicat des pêcheurs de sable et de graviers. The aim of the union is to raise their voices to local authorities to get more and better support for their still unregulated activity, while contributing fairly to the growth of the local economy. Sand extractor companies, meanwhile, are becoming more and more powerful in some areas, to the detriment of the remaining fishers still struggling to make a living.

The grievances of local communities lie not so much in the act of sand extraction itself, however, but the lack of regulation and governance. As in other places where the use of riverbanks serve multiple functions and different sectors are competing for access, such as in Bamako, the major conflicting issue is about governance and sharing the river water and banks between major users.[6] There is the need for governance and dispute resolution mechanisms at the community or state level when conflicts of interest arise.

In Koulikoro, the division and repartition of land titles is a pressing problem, for example. As the sand and sediments are moving with river streams, sand divers might infringe on other property rights, creating conflict with the owner. It is important, therefore, to set net demarcation zones for sand extraction and fishing activities, so that there is no encroachment and both activities can thrive alongside each other on the river. Sand workers have also asked for the implementation and management of fish breeding spaces, so they can once again practice their traditional livelihood.

Local authorities do not seem responsive enough on these issues, according to the sand extractors’ trade union,[7] but they need to be. There are now more than 60 unregulated sites of sand extraction along the Niger river. The continued uncontrolled extraction could cause irreversible damage, particularly on reducing the availability of arable land and making it more difficult to access the water, as the river level drops – exacerbated by dam construction upstream.

More risks of creating local competition and conflict then, and even more reasons to take action sooner rather than later.


This article draws on field research conducted in Bamako in 2011 as well as recent desk research.

Photo © Aurélien Tobie/International Alert

[1] M. Goulden, R. Few, L. Abebe et al, Climate change, water and conflict in the Niger river basin, Norwich: International Alert and University of East Anglia, 2011, http://www.international-alert.org/sites/default/files/ClimateChange_WaterConflictNigerRiver_EN_2011.pdf

[2] Ibid.

[3] The WorldFish Center, Adaptation of floodplain fishing communities to hydro-climatic changes in the Niger basin: Lessons learned, Malaysia, 2010, http://pubs.iclarm.net/resource_centre/WF_2593.pdf

[4] M. Barry, Pêcheurs Bozo, extracteurs de sable, Mali, Droit Libre TV, 2013

[5] L. Ferry, M. Mietton and Y. Cissé Coulibaly, L’équilibre du fleuve Niger perturbé par les “pêcheurs de sable”, Actualité Scientifique, 376, Marseille: Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, 2011

[6] K. Croix (de la), L. Ferry, F. Landy et al, Quelle « place » pour des pêcheurs urbains ? Le cas de Bamako (Mali), Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography, Espace, Société, Territoire, document 648, 2013, http://cybergeo.revues.org/25977

[7] M. Barry, Op. cit.