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Seeds of Doubt

Mali's people reap no reward from cloned wild-rice gene

Philanthropic failure

It's not the gene's scientific potential that has captured the interest of Anil Gupta, an Indian agricultural specialist. It is its philanthropic failure.

Founder of the Honeybee Network, which tracks grass-roots efforts to protect the world's genetic diversity, Gupta wrote a study critical of UC Davis' Genetic Resources Recognition Fund.

A variety of rice with the cloned gene Xa21 ... A variety of rice with the cloned gene Xa21 grows in a lab dish at UC Davis.UC Davis

“I admire the university's initiative, but the means it chose were not appropriate,” Gupta said from his home in India's Gujarat province.

Among other things, his study, commissioned by the U.N. Environment Program, took issue with UC Davis for not consulting with officials in Mali, not working to conserve the wild Malian rice in its natural habitat and not helping the people who actually use it - the Bela.

At UC Davis, those familiar with the fund take a different view.

“Yes, there should be a conservation effort. Yes, there should be consultation,” said Stephen Brush, a professor of human and community development. “But that doesn't mean our efforts were misplaced.” This was a very innovative idea.

“Look at the practicalities of really getting it done,” Brush added. “We would have to go Mali. We'd have to spend time negotiating, figuring out who to talk to.”

Children at risk

Sunrise in Mali, when cream-colored light tumbles out of a pastel sky and casts long shadows across the sand, is magnificent. But by mid.morning, Mali turns malevolent. The sun lances like a knife. The wind stirs up gritty clouds of dust and sand. And the heat has no mercy: It bakes and broils, bringing village life to a standstill.

Scores of statistics evoke Mali's misery. Its economy is among the poorest on the planet. The average life span is 49. The infant mortality rate - 119 per 1,000 births - is the ninth-highest in the world.

But Mali's misfortune touches some more than others. In the desert outback north of Ségou, it is magnified in the Bela villages where statistics are more than numbers on a page. They wear a human face.

They pad along the sand in bare feet and ragged T-shirts. They scavenge for seeds. They slap mud into wood frames to make bricks. And, like 6-year-old Alhousseini Ag Intamaka, they stand in the doorway of a hut in cowhide sandals.

View the photo gallery Bela workers near Niono, Mali, make bricks from mud, water and wild rice and grass plants. It was the first day back at work for Mossa Ag Alamene Cisse, above right, who had been sick with malaria for 18 days.Renée C. Byer

The U.N. Statistics Division reports that Mali has the third-highest illiteracy rate in the world. Eight million of its 12 million people can't read or write. Alhousseini is one of them.

Like most Bela children, he has never seen a school, nor is he likely to. In this isolated village of Djoringuinda, there is no school. And childhood is brief.

“It's important he stay with the family - to help gather food, to herd our goats,” said the boy's mother, Hatta Oualet Aboubaerine, in her native Tamashek language.

Among the Bela, childhood is not only short - it's risky. According to the U.N. Development Program, Mali has the highest childhood mortality rate from malaria in the world - 2,046 per 100,000 in the year 2000.

Many are buried in Bela villages. “I have 15 children but five are dead - three from malaria,” said Douna Ag Ekhamadane, chief of the Bela settlement of Fisso.

But all ages suffer. “For 18 days, I was sick. Today is my first day back,” said brick maker Mossa Ag Alamene Cisse, just recovered from malaria. Standing near his mud-splattered job site, the 36-year-old Bela man looked worn out.

Making bricks is brutal work that pays about $1 a day - a typical wage in Mali, where the U.S. Agency for International Development reports people earn an average of $250 a year. Many make less.

“Sometimes we earn only 50 cents a day,” said Alkhassane Ag Bilal, a Musawere farm worker. “And some days, nothing. We are paid only with food - rice or millet.”

The U.N. also reports that Mali is chronically malnourished - one in five people don't get enough to eat. A balanced diet is not part of the Bela lifestyle.

Bursting into a thatch-roofed hut in Fisso, one gaunt herder opened his cupped hands to reveal a few specks of partially eaten grain seeds - crawling with ants.

“In a good year, these insects gather food like this and store it in the ground,” Wandaya Ag Khami said. “And in a bad year, we dig it up and eat it.”

Ag Khami's home, Fisso, is part of a constellation of Bela villages stretching northeast for 300 sun-punished miles from Niono to Timbuktu. Most settlements are home to fewer than 200 people. They are not marked on maps. For a visitor, just getting to a Bela village is a kidney-jarring excursion over rippling dunes, through eerie forests of flat-topped acacia trees and past grazing camels.

The Bela are tall, strong and friendly. Knowledge of foreign affairs is vague. During one conversation, Musawere chief Aljou Ag Alkhassane was perplexed when “America” was mentioned. “I've heard the name,” he said. “But I don't know what it is.”

Around the squalid farm town of Niono, where many Bela congregate for work, they live in clusters of mud and stick huts on the edges of someone else's fields. They sow sorghum and millet on scrub land ignored by others.

But when their domestic crops wither, the Bela have a backup. They forage for nuts and seeds. They comb the ditches and damp spots for bright green pools of wild Malian rice.

“The work is very hard,” said Fadimata Walet Alkhassane, the Bela woman in Musawere. “Sometimes we labor all day - from morning to night - just for a handful. It can take three or four days to make one meal.”

Nothing is wasted. After the reddish grains are gathered, the Bela bundle the stalks of O. longistaminata and use them for roofs, fences and windbreaks. They mix them with mud to make bricks. They even use them in dancing and ceremonies.

But one day soon, those practices may be history.

Talfi Yattara carries an ax as he recalls gathering wild rice in Bankore 1-7 Koura village. Talfi Yattara carries an ax as he recalls gathering wild rice in Bankore 1-7 Koura village. Since farms were planted, he said, “The wild rice, it no longer appears.” Sacramento Bee/Renée C. Byer

As Mali's rice industry has grown, efforts to eradicate O. longistaminata have intensified. Pointing to a green smudge on the horizon west of his Bela village of Bankore 1-7 Koura, farmer Talfi Yattara shook his head.

“Over there - through those trees - that's where we gathered wild rice,” said Yattara, a pickax over his shoulder. “For me it was important - something to eat, to live on. But farmers from another ethnic group took the land, irrigated it and planted it. The wild rice, it no longer appears.”


 

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