February 2011 - The Government of Mali began a process of decentralization in the 1990s, passing authority down to local governments for the management of land, natural resources and public services. The process was to be “progressive, consultative and participatory,” and to include the creation of communes (local governments established by the voluntary affiliation of neighboring villages), and the demarcation of boundaries. Through decentralization, the national government aimed to empower local government, encourage development, protect the environment, and foster political stability.
The difficulty comes in implementation. The laws governing decentralization are dense, complex and overlap with other laws concerning land and natural resources. The communes negotiate conventions, which establish rules for the private use of village lands, for grazing and fishing rights, and for other uses of natural resources. Enforcement is difficult, however, because local conventions are not legally binding. Rather, their purpose is for communities to commit to a way of working together and be involved in natural resource management. In addition, few communes have demarcated their land, further complicating their ability to enforce local agreements relating to the use of land and other resources.
Communes have the power to appropriate land held under customary tenure, subdivide it, and then lease or sell the land for residential use. This process, known as lotissement, is much abused, fueling land speculation and benefitting the elite. However, it is one of the few available means by which communes can finance themselves.
Despite its imperfections, decentralization in Mali has proven to be an important avenue for communities to gain greater control over land-use decisions and over the natural resources on which they depend.