China’s growing economic presence in sub-Saharan Africa is normally portrayed in one of two ways. Either it’s cast as engaging in rapacious resource extraction without local employment and financial gain, or it’s portrayed as a source of beneficent foreign investment, bringing much-needed capital and building infrastructure in the world’s poorest region. The resistance to Chinese timber exploitation in the West African republic of Mali provides a more nuanced look at the Sino-African relationship, which, under certain circumstances, could act as a catalyst for positive political change in Africa.

In March of this year, the Afro-Asia Timber Company arrived in the western Malian community of Sirakoro to harvest a sizeable quantity of a valuable hardwood tree known locally as venne (Pterocarpus erinaceus). Although the company listed on the contract shown to locals lacked an address, the director of the Department of Nature Conservation, indicating the involvement of the countries highest authorities, had signed the contract.

In reality, politicians at many levels were involved in the affair. Collusion to exploit natural resources in Mali, as in countries across Africa, is nothing new. However, the dynamics of this particular encounter, which represents a drop in the ocean of China’s resource exploitation in Africa, is suggestive of things to come across the continent.

Timber Scandal

Venne, the tree in question is highly valued by local people for its timber and as a source of dry season livestock fodder. Therefore, the sudden and unannounced harvesting by a foreign company instantly created the conditions for a conflict. According to locals involved in the scandal, the company did not respect the terms of the contract initially presented and merely set out cutting every mature venne that its loggers could find.

Seydou Kamisoko, who heads a local non-governmental organization, described how people hoping to put a stop to the logging were initially unsure what to do. Most were farmers who lacked education, and, more importantly, voices that politicians listened to. An organization with national connections acted quickly to alert a group of local people in positions of power in the capital. The involvement of this association, which represents a type of social network found across West Africa, insured that the affair would not easily be ignored.

Following widespread attention in the Malian media, the Minister of the Environment was obliged to visit Sirakoro where encountered local residents intent on stopping the timber extraction. This upwelling of resistance led the Minister to personally issue a decree to halt the operation.

The conflict in Sirakoro focused on the “rules of the game” of natural resource access and control. Although dryland West Africa is typically portrayed in terms of Malthusian resource degradation, the forests in western Mali are abundant and sustainable exploitation is entirely feasible. Had selective logging been adopted with local consultation, the Chinese operation in Sirakoro might have been acceptable. Instead, it became a zero-sum conflict that evoked longstanding grievances between local people and the government.

Violent Politics

Natural resource conflicts in developing countries are, however, often framed in terms of the simplistic narrative of environmental security, which tends to gloss over the complex political dynamics and history that underpin any conflict. Rather than being races to secure the most of a valuable or diminishing resource, conflicts such as Sirakoro affair are frequently embedded in the violent politics of state control of both natural and human capital. Even the notorious conflict in Darfur, which is often perceived to be the quintessential resource conflict, might be more accurately depicted as a struggle between central power and its periphery.

The resistance that the Chinese encountered in Sirakoro suggests a “double movement” in which global capital penetration clashes with local interests. However, the important lesson to be taken in this case is the sea change it represents for power relations within Mali itself. This lesson is instructive for developing countries across the world.

In years past, any voice of local opposition to a move by the central government, however illicit, would have been met with oppression. The result was a largely silent and powerless rural population in Mali. Decades of exploitative policies have played a key role in the persistent poverty found in rural West Africa. Moreover, local political institutions have been progressively undermined by this long legacy of central control, which dates back to French colonial occupation. This phenomenon has only begun to slowly reverse itself since democratization, which began in 1991.

Control of natural resources by local communities is a central facet of Malian democracy and its associated policy of decentralization. However, central authorities have resisted ceding power and the rent seeking opportunities it affords. While rural Malians wait for formal rights to be devolved, logging trucks that come in the night represent the spark that has alighted people’s desire to stand up to their central government. This assertion is anchored in both economic necessity and a discourse of rights that is strengthened by Mali’s vibrant civil society.

A total of 235 tons of venne logs were removed before the people of Sirakoro were able to put a stop to the logging operation. Meanwhile, locals are anxious that logging might resume as chainsaw operators brought in from Guinea-Conakry remain in the community for unknown reasons. While the logging represents an important loss of natural capital, the newfound local political power represents a profound shift in the politics of natural resource access and control in Mali. Extensive media coverage of the event ensures that its lesson will not be lost on other communities facing the same type of external pressure on their natural resources.

Sirakoro is, in fact, representative of communities across sub-Saharan Africa that are slowly gaining legal control over their resources. Building social and political capital at the local level is arguably the most critical imperative for managing those resources in a sustainable way.

China’s growing presence in Africa is often seen as a crude exchange of unconditional loans and development projects in exchange for commodities and diplomatic allegiance. It may also represent an overlooked force that will stimulate the positive growth of Africa’s grassroots social and political capital.

Leif Brottem, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is currently a PhD student in the Geography Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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