KOLDA, Senegal — Traveling south last month from the capital Dakar, I watched as the savannah slowly transformed into a mix of dry forest and low-lying palm-tree-lined rice paddies. Ten hours after leaving Dakar, we pulled into this regional capital. The built-up core of the city, a sweltering jumble of concrete buildings, hummed with late afternoon activity as residents dodged motorcycle taxis, shipping containers and fancy NGO cars as they went about their business. My surprise at all the new construction in town receded as I recognized familiar faces in the market from the three years I had spent here as a Peace Corps volunteer. It felt good to be home.
The eponymous capital of the Kolda region consists of around 80,000 residents, but grows daily as people leave a life of subsistence farming in rural areas for the opportunities the town offers. Most in the region identify as Fulakunda, one branch of the larger Fulbe (Peul or Fula in French and English) ethno-linguistic group. Unlike in other parts of West Africa, Fulbe in Senegal do not face discrimination or the unfair stigmatization of being associated with religious extremists. However, Fulakunda are still underrepresented in state institutions and Kolda is among the poorest regions in Senegal.
In other parts of West Africa, a region like Kolda—remote, close to porous borders, poor, under environmental pressure and populated by minority Fulbe—would be considered susceptible to conflict. Analysts point out that in Mali and Burkina Faso, many young men who join militant groups initially do so more in response to perceived local injustices over pasture and farmland than to, say, form an Islamic caliphate. Although similar grievances and disputes over how to manage natural resources exist in Kolda, this region remains peaceful.
Before traveling here, I had assumed this peace was largely thanks to the courageous work of local civil society organizations helping people resolve their disputes before they resort to violence. Instead, I found a more complicated story that raises questions about the role of the state and how effective local organizations can be in mediating micro-level conflicts.
When I asked friends here about dispute resolution organizations, everyone directed me to Forum Civil, a Senegalese non-governmental organization that focuses on democratization and improving local governance. Established in Dakar in 1993, the organization opened its Kolda branch only a decade ago. Nevertheless, the office, which operates largely independently from Dakar, has already attracted direct funding from foreigner donors, operating on similar assumptions as my own, keen to support mediation efforts in one of Senegal’s impoverished border zones.
I met Aboubacar Camara, the coordinator of Forum Civil Kolda, in one of the last remaining groves of forest downtown. lt quickly became clear that his gruff voice over the phone masked a jovial demeanor that was matched by a round face and a wide grin. He described himself as a son of Kolda, who after studying at the prestigious Science Po in France returned home to advance the cause of justice. After discussing his choice of work, I asked for some specific examples of disputes in which Forum Civil had intervened.
Camara proceeded to narrate an incident that had occurred 80 miles away on the other side of the region in which the organization had supported communities opposed to the local mayor’s granting of 1,000 hectares of land to a Senegalese banana magnate. He mentioned the establishment of a network of “observers of the territory” to monitor how people are using the forest, as well as another network of citizen mediators within Kolda who resolve disputes at a communal level.
I left our conversation impressed. But would the communities he had mentioned describe the interventions in equally glowing terms? What role did the state play in the disputes? Most important, did it seem like the disagreements could spawn violence? After confirming some of what Camara had told me, I rented a motorcycle, packed a small bag and set off on the one tarmac road that bisects the region.
* * *
My first stop was Pakour, a small town of 20,000 people clear on the other side of Kolda. It is known as a way-point for goods and people moving between southern Senegal and Guinea-Bissau and the Republic of Guinea. While its informal networks bring the town a degree of relative prosperity, the surrounding villages continue to live from what they can farm, and in both places many complain they have been forgotten by the government.
From what I had gathered before I rolled into town, Pakour’s mayor’s office had granted Mamadou Oumar Sall, the Senegalese entrepreneur, 1,000 hectares of land on the banks of the Kayanga river in 2016 for industrial banana production. Back in Kolda, Camara had explained that because none of the surrounding communities had deeds to the land, the local government had the right to give it away, within certain conditions, for state development projects. In this case, villagers complained that some of the conditions had not been met (namely that they were not consulted), and sought out Forum Civil’s assistance as they were afraid the land they used to eke out a living was being snatched from them.
After sugary coffee and an oily meat sandwich for breakfast, I rode north to the banana plantation. Passing through an open gate, I was struck at how unnatural the lush, neat rows of bananas looked compared to the parched dust-covered forest that dominated the landscape. I pulled up to a shaded open-air facility where around a hundred people were working in an assembly line cutting banana bunches from their stalks, washing and packing the still-green produce into crates lined with newspaper.
I chatted with a few Malian migrant laborers before walking over to a group of local farmers with whom I could more easily communicate. They explained that each was responsible for a plot in the plantation. They had just harvested their bananas and were in the shed to watch them weighed, which would determine how much they would be paid. When I asked whether the plantation’s establishment had brought any problems, the farmers praised Sall and dismissed the activists, saying they came from outside and did not understand that the project brought jobs to an area with some of the highest unemployment in the country.
I traveled a few kilometers parallel to the river on to the village of Sinthian Nfally, where it appeared even more forest was being cleared to make way for bananas. Near the center of the village, I met Pathe Balde, a tall soft-spoken man whose stately chin beard accentuated his long face. After introductions, we settled into handsome wooden chairs in his hut and he began to narrate his story.
Balde was born and raised in Sinthian Nfally. He spent his 20s traveling around West Africa looking for work before trying to reach Europe through Algeria and Libya. In 2017, he decided to return to his native village and use his small savings to build something at home.
A few months after he returned, someone casually mentioned that Sinthian Nfally’s had been given away by the mayor of Pakour. While he was aware that no one in the village had any official land deeds, he also knew the mayor’s office understood that people used the land to farm and raise their livestock. When he asked around, no one in the village knew anything about it and he was rebuffed by local officials. “You stand at the door of a government office,” he explained. “They ask if you speak French or Wolof. You say you don’t. They say ‘You are crazy, you don’t know anything, you should leave.’”
On the suggestion of a friend, he and a group of delegates from surrounding villages brought their concerns to Forum Civil in Kolda. During an hour-long meeting, they were advised to circulate a petition among households opposed to the project. Balde became Forum Civil’s liaison on the ground, personally collecting over 700 signatures that accompanied a letter the civil society organization sent to the local authorities expressing their concerns.
Still, in early 2018, red X marks were painted on trees in the forest. When Sall’s private loggers arrived with a bulldozer, they were met by a group of young protesters. What happened next is unclear, but ten protesters were subsequently arrested and the clear-cutting was put on hiatus.
Balde wanted to hire a lawyer, but Forum Civil advised him against it, saying that fighting the case would mean the protesters would stay in prison longer. When the protesters were released two months later, Forum Civil drove them back to their villages outside Pakour. It was the first time anyone from Forum Civil had visited the area, and its representatives told locals they would continue to press the authorities about (what amounted to minor) discrepancies in Sall’s paperwork. In the meantime, they stressed, any protests should remain peaceful.
Nevertheless, Sall began approaching other nearby communities offering 60,000 West African Francs (CFA—around $108 at the time) per hectare of land cleared. Initially rejecting the offer, the communities called him back to accept a few months later. In exchange, he promised not to infringe on land farmed by surrounding villages during the rainy season. By 2019, the forest was being felled, irrigation set up and planting holes dug. Sall had prevailed.
Looking back, Balde said once he realized Forum Civil’s tactics were largely ineffective, he stopped calling the organization regularly. Soon afterward, the banana affair disappeared from the organization’s Facebook communications and it moved on to other matters. When the banana issue briefly attracted the attention of the firebrand Senegalese activist Guy Marius Sagna in 2021, Balde and Forum Civil stayed out of the fray.
Earlier this year, Balde himself decided to apply for a parcel in the plantation. “These foreigners are here making money,” he said, referring to the Malians I met at the packing facility. “How can people come here and make money, and the people from here still have nothing?”
Regardless of his decision to get a parcel, Balde still had his concerns about the plantation. While he trusted Sall not to seize the land farmed by Sinthian Nfally, he still wanted to know the boundaries of the 1,000 hectares granted to Sall. “I can support myself with what is there today,” he said, referring to his ancestral fields. “But in the future, if Sall’s children decide to expand the plantation, what will be left for my children?”
Back in Pakour, I finally was able to meet with a former member of the mayor’s municipal council, who did not want to be identified in this dispatch. He said that in 2016, the council had approved the granting of the 1,000 hectares to Sall in one day with minimal debate. The lack of community consultations, together with missing environmental impact report and paperwork discrepancies were never discussed. He insinuated that the decision to grant the land had already been made before the meeting was held. When I asked whether Forum Civil’s intervention in 2018 had been helpful, he chortled and said they did nothing.
As I rode on to my next destination, I reflected on how Forum Civil’s intervention had been relatively ineffective. Farmers praised the plantation, but it seemed to me Sall had been able to buy villages off and that locals’ concerns remained. That he had been able to obtain so much land without any consultations or transparency with the approval of local government also did not bode well.
* * *
My next stop was Sare Mballo, a tiny village nestled between two protected forests near the border with Guinea-Bissau. To get there, I pulled off the smooth tarmac road in the ever-expanding town of Dabo and drove south on a washboard laterite road for 20 minutes. I would have missed the village, which consists of three households 50 yards back from the road, had it not been for a faded sign flanked by regal baobab trees.
I had come to the village because the chief, Youssoupha Mballo, had participated in “l’observatoire sur le territoire” (observers of the territory, OSTER). The program was established in 2018 as a network of around three dozen people in villages across the commune of Coumbacara who were responsible for collecting and disseminating information about the land and environment to raise awareness among both local communities and authorities.
“We don’t have any factories, markets or rivers here,” Mballo told me as we settled into handmade cots under the mango tree in the center of the village. “The forest is all we have and it is disappearing. OSTER was supposed to help protect it.” When I asked how the group did that, he described guiding people through land registration, leading re-forestation campaigns, drawing attention to illegal logging and regulating disputes with passing herders.
The herders, he said in response to my question, came from around Matam in the Futa Toro area of northern Senegal. Every year they bring their flocks, supposedly authorized by the forestry service (known as Eaux et Foret in Senegal), to the forests of Kolda in the dry season to feed them with leaves from branches cut from live trees. Conflicts often arise when herders cut down important trees or graze their herds in people’s gardens and orchards.
When I asked for examples, he said a farmer had fired a gun at a herder in a village near Dabo last year after he continued to graze his cattle in the farmer’s cashew orchard. Just two weeks ago, he said, passing herders had slashed the face of his neighbor’s cow after it started eating their sheep’s fodder. In the second case, as often happens, the herders fled immediately afterward and were never held accountable.
Around a year ago, Mballo added, he had confronted a group of herders in the forest, asking for their papers. When they responded by fetching their machetes, he pulled out a wad of rags with a pistol peeking out from the bottom, prompting them to back off. A few hours later, the herders returned with a gendarme, who had been told that Mballo was carrying an unlicensed firearm. He confirmed he had a pistol, saying he would show it only to the gendarme with no herders present. They went into his hut, where he revealed his pistol was actually fake, made of plastic.
When I suggested to Mballo that his account was evidence the gendarmerie was actually doing its job—in this case checking up on allegations about firearms—he scoffed. “The government are a part of the problem,” he insisted. “Even if you call them and they arrest the herders today, you will see the same herders in the forest again tomorrow. There are forestry agents who are making a living exploiting the forest!”
The problem, Mballo alleged, is even worse when it comes to illegal logging. He launched into a detailed description of how in December of 2020 he stumbled onto a stack of timber in the protected forest. Using a smartphone provided by Forum Civil, he took pictures and sent them to the local forestry service office as well as the mayor of the local commune. He said they acknowledged receipt but did nothing to follow up. A few days later, one of the loggers who had cut the trees called him to offer a bribe to keep quiet.
When Mballo told Forum Civil about the attempted bribe, the group immediately posted the photos on its Facebook page along with a comment, that it was the “umpteenth time OSTER in Coumbacara had seized and intercepted the forestry service.” The forestry service began to file a formal complaint against Forum Civil, accusing it of slander. Eventually the gendarmerie intervened, advising the forestry service not to press charges and to investigate the original claim. That afternoon, Mballo showed the illegally felled timber, which was promptly seized. By that point, the loggers had already returned to central Senegal.
Mballo acknowledged that Forum Civil’s intervention had led to the timber being seized, but he maintained that the problem—a handful of corrupt forestry agents who look the other way as loggers and herders exploit the forest at the expense of local communities—remains unsolved. When I pointed out that over two and a half years, OSTER’s efforts resulted in the arrests of 15 herders and nine loggers, he shot back that that was just a drop in the bucket. The program officially ended late last year, and Mballo said he no longer communicated with other members.
Before I left Sare Mballo that evening, he led me through bush paths down to a seasonal stream. On the way, he pointed out a tree whose bark is believed to increase women’s fertility, which water holes still had fish in the dry season and the mud pits where crocodiles escaped the heat of the day. “We live off this forest,” he repeated, “if we do not protect it, we will not have anything to give to our children.”
* * *
As I rode back into the city of Kolda, I noticed the previously forested periphery of the city was now pockmarked with construction sites and more people moving into town to enjoy the advantages of urban life. I had to negotiate a traffic jam (unthinkable five years ago) just to get stuck in the packed market area. After five days in rural areas, I was quickly overwhelmed in the hustle-bustle of downtown and beat a hasty retreat to my lodgings for that night.
With a good night’s sleep behind me the next morning, I began looking into the last project that Camara had mentioned, which, similarly to OSTER, consists of a network of community members who help people in the city navigate government bureaucracy and mediate neighborhood disputes.
I was not particularly surprised when I learned that Cheriff Diallo—a former Peace Corps work partner and dear friend—had been chosen to be one of the focal points for his neighborhood. A short, stout man in his late 60s, Diallo humbly describes himself as a simple farmer, but behind the scenes he is also a pillar of the community, having served on the parent-teacher committee of a local school and volunteered in the state health system.
After pulling water from the well for Diallo to irrigate his citrus trees, we reclined in his familiar rice-sack chairs and began discussing his role as a citizen mediator. The bulk of his work, he explained, consisted of helping students get their birth certificates, necessary for taking national exams. People also come to him with marital disputes or if fights in the neighborhood break out, in which case he sits down with both parties and encourages reconciliation. Last, he added, people also come with conflicts over land.
When I asked for an example, he let out a long sigh and suggested we make another round of Nescafé because he had a long story to recount. In 2012, before he was working with Forum Civil, the newly elected mayor of the nearby commune of Sare Bidji claimed to have lost land registration documents that proved Diallo and a dozen other families owned land outside town. Suspecting a ruse, they decided to unite and create an informal committee to fight for their land.
They brought the issue to Forum Civil, which collected signatures and wrote a letter to the mayor asking for documentation. The mayor acknowledged receipt of the letter but never responded to the questions. That was the extent of the families’ interaction with the Forum Civil on the issue.
Nevertheless, the informal committee continued to engage religious leaders, other government offices and media. Finally, after years of lobbying, the mayor recently relented to the pressure and agreed to conduct another land survey and give the families their lands back. Diallo appeared disillusioned about Forum Civil’s intervention in his case but refused to criticize the organization and instead diplomatically suggested the informal committee was better placed to pursue justice because it was closer to the problem.
Meanwhile, in his role as a citizen mediator with Forum Civil, he added, he sometimes solicits the support of the committee on other land issues. His problem was not unique—as the city of Kolda grows, new neighborhoods often remain under the jurisdiction of rural communes that in a few cases have tried seizing land.
I asked why even for people in urban areas, who are closer to the courts and more likely to speak French, the language of officialdom, relying on the informal committee or Forum Civil’s citizen mediators is preferable to taking legal action. Mayors of communes have the right to grant land if there are no prior claims to it, as is often the case, so establishing criminal behavior is difficult. Even when law-breaking is clear, he said, formal processes are slow, expensive, tend to poison relationships and can result in prison time. “People trust the courts to resolve disputes,” he assured me, “but only as a last resort.”
* * *
Toward the end of my stay in Kolda, I went back to Forum Civil’s office. In a pleasant exchange with Camara, the coordinator of Forum Civil Kolda, I relayed some of the criticism I had heard. He pushed back in a few instances, but generally responded that the organization is constantly learning from its mistakes. They were not made aware of the situation in Pakour until too late, he said. OSTER was created to provide better information about what is happening outside the city, he added. In general, he repeated, the approach is to support citizens, not lead them. If people like Balde from Sinthian Nfally stop calling, they would not force the issue.
I realized that while Forum Civil Kolda is a local organization insofar as it is based in and led by people from Kolda, it is still removed from the issues they tackle. That often leaves them dependent on local partners. Diallo in Kolda may be the perfect member for a network of conflict mediators, but former members of Forum Civil suggested that Mballo’s hot-bloodedness poisoned relations between OSTER and the forestry agents in Sare Mballo.
As I packed my bags to return home to Dakar, I considered how simplistic my conception of Forum Civil’s role in keeping the peace had been. While Kolda shares many similarities with areas of Mali and Burkina Faso that are being ravaged by rural insurgencies, there are also important differences. Although Kolda sits in a porous border zone, there is no conflict nearby that could draw in weapons or militants. The schisms within Fulbe society in Kolda are not nearly as pronounced as they are in other areas. People complain about corrupt local authorities and being ignored by Dakar, but they do not consider the government to be explicitly discriminatory or predatory. Forum Civil’s interventions have yet to amount to much, and at the end of the day it is the state, as imperfect as it may be, that plays the largest role in ensuring communal disputes do not fester and metastasize into open violence.
 Both Sare Mballo nor Youssoupha Mballo are made up names for security reasons.
 See my previous dispatch for my first writing from the Futa Toro.
 There is the long-simmering Casamance rebellion close by in the Ziguinchor region, but that conflict over creating a new state has never had any appeal in Kolda.
Top photo: Downtown Kolda (circa 2017)