COMMUNITY VOICES | Twin Cities Climate Resiliency: A Lesson from Bamako, Mali


When I walked off Air France’s stairwell onto the tarmac in Bamako, I took a deep breath in. I immediately noticed the intensity of the hot, dry air in an environment so unlike Minneapolis where I live. I recall the air having some familiarity,10 hours west of Minneapolis in the Bad Lands.   Bamako’s air tightened my skin pores to preserve the moisture retained from sucking down water and ginger ale during my night flight in.  It was hot and dry on a Tuesday Night – near 90 degrees at 10:00 p.m.  This was a “more comfortable night” for the Malians, and foreigners who made Bamako their home.  Lucky me, my feet touched the ground in late February… it was summertime. But as one woman put it, “there is summer, and then there is hell…” Come March, hell enters Bamako and remains until October.

Located in the sub-Saharan region of Northern Africa, Bamako sits in the southwest part of the country and serves as Mali’s capital.  Because of its location, the notion of climate resiliency was at the forefront of my mind.  The idea of “resiliency” or “acclimation” in a changing world known to my indigenous Taino ancestors in the Americas began in 1492, introduced by the double heads of colonialism and capitalism. For indigenous peoples, this forced acclimation extends to present day.

We’ve witnessed how a consolidated economy, concentrated in the hands of a very few, yields an unrelenting global military economic power achieved through colonialism. This form of capitalism, with military values, has pushed the global community onto a multi-faceted environmental brink, and, as United States Secretary John Kerry recently stated in Jakarta, Indonesia, “[C]limate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.”  Similar to other weapons of mass destruction (WMD), climate change is brought to you in no insignificant part by the military industrial complex thriving in our global capital regime. A somewhat contrite Kerry told the Indonesians that 40% of the climate WMD was brought on by the United States and China, recognizing both countries must shoulder a substantive responsibility to deactivate the climate WMD.

As part of continental Africa, Bamako faces the most extreme threats from climate change.  Under a number of international predictions, it is set on course to a searing, perpetual heat wave. In a recent report entitled “Africa Adaptation Gap Report”[i] released by the United Nations Environmental Programme, “If the world exceeds 3 celsius globally, virtually all of the present maize, millet, and sorghum cropping areas across Africa could become unviable. And if the world reaches 4 Celsius, 20- and 30-percent reductions in precipitation will occur in northern and southern Africa.”  Hot as hell and no rain – that’s horrifically more than a climate predicament for over one billion people living on the continent.

Back home in Minneapolis, with extreme heat in the summer time similar to Bamako, but with humidity, our city’s climate is changing.  Based on a conservative prediction of climate change in Minnesota, at the turn of the century Minnesota is predicted to look like Nebraska present day.  Re-landscaped, Minnesota will become as dry as the central Great Plains region where summer temperatures regularly stretch into the upper 90s and 100s, and with prolonged summers.  Minnesota’s current boreal forests will die leaving grassland and oak savannas to replace Minnesota’s trees in the north and south. 

Currently, the Midwest experiences life-threatening weather events including extreme rainfalls, flooding, tornadoes, high winds, and precarious drought conditions.  We witness bizarre temperature swings of 30 degrees Fahrenheit down to 24 degrees below zero, with wind chill as cold as 52 degrees below zero in 24 hours.  When these summer/winter weather extremes occur in the Twin City communities, they provide an energetic focal point for our attention and critical reflection of the reality of future livability in the Twin Cities.  

Minnesota’s degrading livability in a changing climate is not new to Minneapolis or St. Paul and stretches way back to an ambiguous “Pike” Treaty of 1805 (or earlier), which records an agreement between U.S. military representative Captain Zebulon Pike and 2 Dakota men, Le Petit Carbeau and Way Aga Enogee, at Wakpa Tanka (Mississippi river) near Fort Snelling. This ambiguous agreement fomented a U.S. government sanctioned environmental catastrophe affecting livability for Dakota and other Indigenous nations with the appropriation and control of the Wakpa Tanka.  The Pike Treaty of 1805 introduced and opened the door for U.S. river trade followed by the rise of a chemicalized, corporate agricultural economy destroying Wakpa Tanka’s pure and clean waters.  As a consequence to the 1805 climate WMD, the destruction of Wakpa Tanka included the annihilation of the river’s ecosystem, disruption to mammal endocrine systems, and the creation of a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico waters. Written in Minnesota’s landscape and waters present day, a form of ecological violence was necessary to successfully build Minnesota’s existing state government/corporate structure.  The state, as a laboratory experiment and model for “development”, reflected what other states in the union found environmentally necessary  – commit an objective form of violent resource transgression, appropriate, sovereign indigenous lands and waters contained in the 50 states to build the United States.

Evidence, made available through oral history and other recordings, tells us prior to 1805, Dakota nets were regularly cast into the Wakpa Tanka waters and within minutes the likes of walleye, northern, perch, trout, and other fish species were flipping out of the nets pulled from the river.  These harvests were sufficient to meet the needs of the people … no one went hungry.   Today, due to severe mercury contamination of fish in Wakpa Tanka, for women in their child bearing years and children under the age of 15, safe consumption is limited to (1) fish meal per month. Existing contamination of traditional food sources in present day degrades the possibility of resiliency amongst indigenous peoples and other vulnerable communities in light of a compromised diet.  Thus, the 1805 climate WMD caused the first incidence of food insecurity in Minnesota and extends into present day. 

This insecurity, to land and water, including its pollution, leads to food insecurity.  Food insecurity manifests inadequate nutrition and perpetuates consumption of contaminated food sources, including gmo based foreign diets, which in turn is either linked to or causes obesity, diabetes, heart diseases, allergies and other physiological and mental stressors in the lives of indigenous peoples, people of color and low-income communities.  The nexus of insecurity – land, water, food, diet – and its threat to climate resilient communities must be addressed.

Insecure access to land and water is the greatest threat to a climate resilient city and its people.  Existing contamination of land and water further aggravates this great threat.

For indigenous peoples residing in the Twin Cities, climate resiliency in native communities is untenable without access to land and water as understood through treaty rights, and by resolving poverty; no exceptions.  For others representing the diverse environmental justice communities in Minneapolis and St. Paul (indigenous Latinos, African- American, Hmong, Somali and other new immigrant populations), these communities have been left largely without access to clean land and water, and stroked with deepening poverty caused by the 2008 recession.  The red, brown and black are left food insecure, relegated to the status of collateral damage by the climate WMD.  Landless and poor, an environmental injustice to building a climate resilient city.

It is incumbent upon elected and appointed government leaders to re-conceptualize how it is that governing bodies in the Twin Cities (and throughout the U.S.) provide meaningful access to land and water for indigenous peoples, and other environmental justice communities in order to build climate resiliency.  Minneapolis and St. Paul hold promise to rehabilitate traditional rainfed urban agricultural systems, complimented by lakes and streams serving as tributaries to the precious Wakpa tanka.  However, government leaders must critically deliberate with first nation Dakota peoples, other indigenous critical thinkers, and environmental justice groups on the threats to resiliency, and move forward to disarm these threats.

Similar to the historic Bdote in Minnesota for Dakota people and other indigenous peoples, Mali hosts an intellectual epicenter in their country – the great city of Timbouctou – stretching back to the 12th century (if not earlier).  It is here that great minds including Mali’s great scientific King Soundjata lead Bamako’s evolution, developing and engineering Mali’s water infrastructure and creating a necessary mechanism for a thriving urban agriculture for its city and people.  Despite all of the historic transgressions and challenges the City has faced, the realization of King Soundjata’s vision for water and agriculture in Bamako, although debilitated, has withstood destruction and is forever imprinted in Bamako present day fueling the possibility of a climate resilient city in the 21st century. 

Complimented by the great Niger river, Mali’s sub-Saharan region depends heavily on a rainfed agriculture system feeding the river and is evident today in the City of Bamako. The City hosts flourishing local urban farms where cultivating vegetables like corn, onions, lettuce, carrots, potatoes, growing fruit trees of papaya, mango and bananas while tending to grazing cows and goats in the backdrop of city streets and residential apartments is the norm today. 

Wary not to capitulate to a “western” mentality of wearing rose-colored glasses and romanticizing about Bamako’s reality, its reported that 75% of the city’s farmers do not own the land they farm, and local conflicts of land use pit construction development against urban farming.  Additionally, Bamako exists in an atmosphere where powerful geo-political interests are unmistakably felt and seen.  The day before I flew out of Bamako it was reported that an active Al Qaedah subgroup in the north of Mali had obtained and shot off 3 missiles in the country, further unnerving the extremely fragile sense of security in the Capital.  Bamako also survived a 2012 coup d’état, but only with the help of a rapid deployment of French troops in early 2013 to “take back” the Capital from its captors.   Despite all the volatile aggressions and foreign influence disrupting its existence in a region suffering from a direct hit of the climate WMD, Bamako provides a lesson for leadership in the Midwest’s hot, dry cities, including our Twin Cities, about how to live in extreme heat and build climate resilient communities through the retention of centuries old urban agriculture systems with meaningful access to land and water.

Emblematic of Bamako’s struggle for climate resiliency I saw beautiful yellow and black spotted butterflies fluttering upon vibrant fuchsia flowers in urban farms in where concerntina wire demarks who has access to land, to water.  In the middle of an urban farm a woman dropped her pail into an underground well that catches flowing water from a subterranean stream.  The underground stream flowed into the great Niger river that brought life to this City some thousands of years ago.  Pulling and lifting her water pail to the surface of the well, she filled two water cans attached to sprayers.  In the 99 degree heat, she walked through neatly patterned square parcels to water the carrots, lettuce and other vegetables; not a drop to waste in this precious green belt of resilience.  Soon, her vegetables will be community market ready. Harvested by hand, she will place her vegetables into a round basket balanced on her head and walk onto to the city market, as her ancestors did for thousands of years before. 

Like the urban farmers in Bamako, we are called to rise up and strategically plant and restore more trees, more fruit bushes, more vegetables, more herbs, more flowers, more medicines in order to defeat the climate WMD destroying the Twin Cities and other Midwest cities.  With anticipated heat waves in Minneapolis and St. Paul, we must demand effective strategies for access to land and water that will support the return of the historic use of land and water, including the abundance of wild rice in lakes, fish streaming through the rivers and its tributaries, and resolve issues of extinct plants and medicine once present.  Our climate resiliency depends on the restoration of a clean, interconnected ecological system that predates the existence of Minneapolis and St. Paul, with access to land and water under treaty obligations and with justice.