Democracy Lab

The Desert Versus the Delta

Why democracy is good for the environment.

GUIDIO, Mali — I've just had the privilege of interviewing Hamadoun Touré, the mayor of a village deep in the heart of one of Africa's most sensitive environmental crisis zones. He's not a man who's easy to reach, but I'm not complaining. To get there, we started by driving for a full day from Bamako, the capital of the West African republic of Mali, to the provincial capital of Mopti. We spent the night there, and the next morning we got on a small boat that took us up the Niger River, another full day's journey.

It was an extraordinary experience. Chugging along at 25 miles an hour, our boat took us straight through the Inner Niger Delta, one of the world's most unique ecosystems. Look at a satellite image of this part of the world and you'll see a big green splash at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. This is where the Niger River (Africa's third-largest) loses itself in an immense braid of marshes, lakes, and canals, before emerging on the other side to continue its orderly way toward Nigeria. (At 18,000 square miles, the Niger Delta is about 25 times the size of the 734-square-mile Florida Everglades, the most prominent wetlands zone in the United States.)

We saw nomadic herders in a boat guiding a huge herd of swimming cattle across the Niger, a scene reminiscent of the Wild West. We passed the portable wood-and-thatch homes of fishermen who move from place to place in search of the next catch, and adobe villages that boasted mud-colored mosques with spiky towers that looked as if they'd been dripped from wet sand. We didn't see any of the hippos, African manatees, or electric eels that are known to frequent the waters of the Delta. But we did see monkeys, monitor lizards, and an astonishing variety of birds, evidence of the extraordinary biodiversity of the place.

So you can see why I didn't mind the effort involved in reaching Mayor Touré. I finally caught up with him in the village of Guidio (pronounced GEE-jo) on the shore of a lake at the northern edge of the Delta, where we talked about the complicated relationship between democracy and the environment. At this time of year, when the water in the Delta is high, the village (pop. 5,500) can't be reached by car; it has neither electricity nor running water. Despite its remoteness, though, Guidio finds itself at the front lines of the global fight to safeguard the Earth -- a challenge with which the mayor and his constituents grapple every day.

I started off by asking the mayor to explain what people in his community are most concerned about. His first answer: "Poverty." His second: "Wood." People in this part of Africa rely on wood to fuel their fires, and they also need it to build homes (usually made here of adobe applied to a framework of branches). But years of uncontrolled cutting, combined with climate change, have devastated the forests that once surrounded Guidio. As a result, the sands of the Sahara Desert, which used to start many miles north of the village, have now moved right up to its edge. They know that their community's past practices have contributed to the desertification that threatens them, and they're trying to change. But they're desperately poor, so they're struggling to find alternatives.

The villagers' plight might sound exotic and remote, but it's actually our problem too. The Niger Delta is under severe pressure. As we traveled through it, I was struck by how densely populated the area is: everywhere we went, there was someone in a boat or on the shore. 1.4 million people -- fishermen, farmers, nomadic herders -- depend on the Delta's water, grass, and fish for their livelihoods, and overuse has been taking its toll. The five countries along the Niger's course have all been taking out as much water as they can for irrigation and drinking, and demand continues to rise. And then there's climate change. To Mayor Touré, who has spent a lifetime watching rainfall shrink and shorelines recede, this isn't a bone of ideological contention -- it's a palpable reality.

Losing the Delta would certainly destabilize Mali, since those 1.4 million people (in a country of 15 million) would suddenly find themselves desperately looking for new livelihoods -- something that this country, already one of Africa's poorest, really can't afford.

And not only for economic reasons. Last year, an alliance of Tuareg separatists and al Qaeda-affiliated jihadis managed to seize control of the country's north (an area the size of France). The prospect that this rogue territory could become a sort of Taliban state in the center of West Africa so unnerved the government in Paris that French President Francois Holland dispatched a contingent of his own troops to Mali to put an end to the rebellion. Experts pointed out that one factor contributing to the revolt was a recent spate of drought that exacerbated the area's longstanding economic problems.

The Delta reminds us powerfully of the world's interconnectedness.

Bakary Kone, of the environmental organization Wetlands International, says that one recent study shows a remarkably precise correlation between the steady decline in the population of purple herons summering in Europe each year and the decline of water levels in the Delta, where most of the birds winter and breed. Dozens of species of birds, animals, and fish have already disappeared, says Kone.

That overlaps with the personal experience of Mayor Touré, who notes that older people in the area can recall the days when lions, hyenas, and jackals still lurked in the now-vanished woodlands. "Many kinds of birds and fish have gone," he says.

So what does all this have to do with democracy? A lot. Mali prides itself on the resilience of its democratic institutions -- something that's much more typical of contemporary Africa than you might expect.

  Twenty-four years ago, three African countries were democracies; last year, 19 were.

Twenty-four years ago, three African countries were democracies; last year, 19 were. The mayor, himself an elected official, believes that there's a lot that local people can do to revive the Delta's beleaguered ecology -- but only if they can agree on what needs to be done. That, he says, requires constant discussion among everyone in the community -- among all concerned "stakeholders," as humanitarians would put it. And in fact, local democratic institutions help to build consensus. "Whatever the local assembly decides, people have to abide by it," explains Mayor Touré.

The villagers are desperately trying to learn from past mistakes by doing what they can to resuscitate the Delta's ecology. They're participating in schemes to restore the Delta's native swamp grass as well as replanting trees. Several international nongovernment organizations, including Wetlands International and the Switzerland-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), are helping out with advice, organizational assistance, and some funding. Mali's democracy allows plenty of civil society activity, in contrast, say, to Russia, where these foreign NGOs would not even be allowed to help.

Key among those efforts are projects helping locals supplement their livelihoods in ways that don't degrade the Delta. IUCN, for example, gives training and microcredits to women to help them start small businesses (in animal husbandry, for example). Touré praises the community's elected representative to the national parliament, who, he says, has done a good job of making the central government aware of the region's problems.

Otherwise, though, the government in Bamako is conspicuous by its absence -- or its corruption, a notorious problem in Mali's system of governance. Politicians in the capital, for example, have signed off on opaque deals that hand over thousands of square miles of arable Niger Delta land to foreign companies (South Africa and Saudi Arabia).

Even high-ranking bureaucrats say they've never been apprised of the details behind the agreements. Kone says that thousands of people in the Delta have already been forced off the land, which will now be used to consume precious resources and grow food for people in places most Malians will never have a chance to see.

Perhaps the most notorious agreement was drawn up between Mali's ex-president Amadou Toumani Touré and the late Muammar al-Qaddafi. The contract set aside 250,00 acres (roughly 391 square miles) of good Delta land (and the water that came with it) to grow produce for Libyans. But Qaddafi's death in the 2011 revolution and Touré's fall from power in the military coup that derailed Malian democracy for a time last year have left that deal in tatters. The Chinese engineers who had already started digging a canal to divert water to the Libyan agro-complex have fled, and the project has since been abandoned.

What's happening with the other land deals in the wake of Touré's death remains unclear. Yet what's evident is that Mali and its environment need more democracy, not less. Accountability and transparency can't solve all the Delta's problems, to be sure; many of the factors involved are much bigger than Mali alone can handle. And finding proper jobs for the region's people, in a country that's still one of the poorest in Africa, is a gigantic challenge.

Still, shining light on the government's books -- especially where the vast flows of foreign aid to Mali are concerned -- would be a great place to start. It would also be good news for the Delta, which might then begin to see more of the public services and benefits it's been promised over the years. But it's not only Malians who should be worried how the story turns out.

FRANCOIS XAVIER MARIT/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Heretical Pope Francis vs. Rush Limbaugh

When a radical pope says it's time we stopped treating capitalism like it's a religion, American conservatives get preachy.

Wow. This pope really is good at getting people riled up. A few days ago, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church issued a 224-page document (an "apostolic exhortation," to be precise) that laid out some of his thoughts on how the church should conduct itself in the modern world. It's a thoroughly religious document. But a few of his observations have touched off gales of indignation.

Most of the aggravation has to do with the pope's criticism of what he calls "the new idolatry of money." In his text he assails the problem of inequality, asks that we pay greater attention to the needs of the poor, and attacks the idea that the urge to accumulate wealth is an end unto itself. Sure, the bible has a lot of harsh things to say about the wanton rich: "Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotten and your garments have become moth-eaten.... You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter." And so on.

But Francis is going straight after Milton Friedman: Few of his remarks have attracted greater attention, for example, than the one where he criticized the notion that "trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world."

Nowhere in the document does he mention specific policies to counter these problems. He doesn't call for increased taxation of the rich. (The word "tax" occurs only once in the document, in a passage that criticizes tax evasion and corruption.) He doesn't sing the praises of collectivism. He doesn't attack the principle of private property, nor does he advocate public ownership of the means of production.

It's worth noting that this pope has a long track record of opposing liberation theologists in his homeland of Argentina. Still, I guess it's theoretically possible that the pope really is a closet Maoist. After all, he does say (in one of my favorite passages): "I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security."

That's pretty subversive stuff. But the point here is that he doesn't actually offer up specific policy proposals to cure the problems he's describing. That's because he's analyzing a spiritual crisis. He's not outlining programs. He's describing a malaise that he sees in the world and challenging us to fix it.

But who cares? Why would anyone actually trouble to read what the guy is saying? It turns out that it's much more satisfying to scold the pope for wading into such controversial waters. It turns out there are plenty of red-blooded (mostly American) men out there who are keen to defend capitalism's honor against even the slightest of slights.

Take, for example, Louis Woodhill, a commentator for Forbes magazine. Woodhill works himself into a tremendous lather over the pope's musings. Francis, he writes, "has lent the prestige of the Catholic Church to leftist/socialist whining about the 'new tyranny' of 'inequality,' 'exclusion,' and 'marginalization.'" Woodhill is appalled. How dare the pope claim that such things exist! If there are poor people in the world, it's their own damned fault.

Or perhaps the Vatican itself is to blame. After all, Woodhill explains, the world suffered from low economic growth during the 1,500 years or so when the church played a major political role in the life of Europe. Luckily, though, the Reformation came along, and self-starting Protestant culture liberated us from the scourge of Jesuitical socialism. Given this record of poor economic management by the church, Woodhill contends, the pope should hold his tongue.

The conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh, America's premier political entertainer, was keen to pile on (though not quite so ingenious in his arguments). He was especially upset by this part of the pope's critique: "The culture of prosperity deadens us. We are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime, all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle. They fail to move us."

This sounds pretty keenly observed to me. But Limbaugh just couldn't bear it: "That's going way beyond matters that are ethical," he spluttered. "This is almost a statement about who should control financial markets. He says that the global economy needs government control."

Well, no. Actually, Francis doesn't say anything of the kind. Instead he's exhorting us (a pronoun that expressly includes politicians and world leaders) to look closely at our own behavior and its consequences. That's precisely why his text is an "exhortation," a rumination on issues of justice and charity, not a white paper from some Washington think tank. Francis is inspired by the radical message of Jesus: "Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise."

Does this sort of thinking make Christ a proto-socialist? I'm not sure the question makes much sense, to be honest. For Limbaugh, though, it's a clear case: Pope Francis is a "Marxist." Just for good measure, he draws a stark contrast between Francis and Pope John Paul II, who stared down the Soviet Union and made a signal contribution to the collapse of communism. John Paul II, in this reading, was the ultimate Cold Warrior, a man at the opposite end of the spectrum from this sentimental, pinko Francis.

Except that he wasn't. Here's a sample from John Paul II's own writings in 1991. "The Marxist solution has failed," he noted. And yet, he continued: "Vast multitudes are still living in conditions of great material and moral poverty. The collapse of the Communist system in so many countries certainly removes an obstacle to facing these problems in an appropriate and realistic way, but it is not enough to bring about their solution. Indeed, there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces."

That bit about blindly trusting the market sounds to me like vintage Pope Francis. Those who believe in the panacea of trickle-down economics express, he says, "a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system."

Francis, in short, isn't saying that capitalism is inherently bad. What he's saying is that we shouldn't fetishize it. We shouldn't treat it as if it's beyond reproach, something that we can't even dare to change. "We have created new idols," he says at one point. "The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose." Elsewhere, he worries about the "interests of a deified market."

I think he's right to warn about this -- and his American conservative critics are the proof. For them, the rightness of "unfettered capitalism" is an article of faith. Their adherence to the free enterprise system has become a new, secular religion, and they just can't bear the idea that someone with the pope's spiritual authority would dare to question it. The pope, to them, is quite simply a heretic. In such minds, the very notion that capitalism could do with reform -- that we should make capitalism work for us, rather than the other way around -- is blasphemy. "The problem with modern capitalism -- a problem that escaped the scrutiny of His Holiness -- is not too much freedom, but too little," as another of the pope's American critics intoned.

Really? I wonder how many other people in the world will agree?

Franco Origlia/Getty Images