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Participatory multi-level vulnerability assessment in northern Mali: Understanding socio-ecological complexity

Participatory multi-level vulnerability assessment in northern Mali
Multiple Authors

Forests as safety nets: fodder

Using a participatory approach across levels and genders, this project explored the vulnerability of livestock- and forest-based livelihoods to climate variability and change in Lake Faguibine, northern Mali, where drastic ecological, political and social changes have occurred. Lake Faguibine has been almost completely dry since the droughts of the 1970s and has transformed from a water-based to a forest ecosystem.

Under the EU funded Tropical Forests and Climate Change Adaptation project (TroFCCA), CIFOR researchers explored the differential vulnerability of local communities depending on livestock and forests in northern Mali. For a deeper understanding of vulnerability, the research approach was: multi-level (from local to national and vice versa); participatory (with different tools for eliciting people’s views, depending on level); integrative (with consideration of ecological, social, economic and political factors); and, gender-sensitive.


The research was conducted in phases, including interviews and workshops in different locations. For phase 1 semi-structured interviews were conducted at the national, regional and district levels in order to determine the region and sites of the vulnerability assessment phases. Phase 2 and 3 involved two participatory workshops in Goundam and six participatory workshops in the two communities, Tin Aicha and Ras El Ma, with 25–35 participants in each workshop. Each of these focused on attaining vulnerability assessments from specific groups, and vulnerability assessments were carried out using different tools from Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA).

At the local level, questions were focused first on climate variability, specifically on drought events, since communities in the Sahel have particularly experienced droughts in the last decades. Later, a long-term perspective was introduced in order to bring in climate change. Topics of dicsussion included how communities and people coped with past extreme climate events, how they are coping now and how they will cope in the future with increasing climate risks. Questions covered the socioeconomic, institutional and political factors influencing coping strategies in the past and the future. At the meso and national levels, vulnerability and adaptive capacity in terms of resource availability, entitlement and the ability of people to use the resources in case of drought events were discussed.


It was found that the distribution of vulnerabilities within livelihoods and groups shifted when the ecosystem of Lake Faguibine evolved from a lake to a forest. In this process new vulnerability drivers emerged. Different views of climate change impacts, vulnerability and adaptation were expressed among the different social groups. Political interests and psychological barriers hinder the local transition to an equitable and sustainable use of forest ecosystem services.

The research showed that forests currently support responses to cumulative stressors and play an integral part in the coping strategies of various livelihood groups.

Learning Outcomes

The study found that vulnerability assessments should capture differences in perception, otherwise they may lead to maladaptation or inefficient adaptation efforts. Power relationships, different interests, norms and values influence the judgment about who is more or less vulnerable, or about one’s own vulnerability. Divergent perceptions, social identities, interests and power explained why different actors—governmental and non-governmental, men and women, local, sub-national and national— differed in their vulnerability assessments.

This case study confirms the need for participatory and gender-sensitive vulnerability assessments across different scales and levels that consider the interaction between socio-ecological systems and the dynamics and distribution of vulnerability across different social sub-systems.

For more information, contact Houria Djoudi

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