A critical political ecology of cotton and soil fertility in Mali
The aim of this article is to analyse the influence of commodified cotton production on soil fertility in southern Mali. From the late 1950s and until recently, production of both cash-crop cotton and food crops have increased rapidly in this region, giving it a reputation of being an African ‘success story’. The flip side of this economic success is, however, said to be environmental degradation especially in terms of loss of soil fertility. We collected 273 soil samples in 19 villages located in various zones of land use intensity. In each village, the samples were collected on up to six different land use types varying with intensification. The analysis of the soil samples showed that soil fertility was highest in the sacred groves that have been protected and never cultivated. However, comparing soils under continuous cultivation and soils under fallow no clear trends in soil fertility were found. Cotton yields have declined since the early 1990s, while the total use of fertilisers has increased. This is often interpreted as proof of soil exhaustion, but there is no clear indication in this study that cotton-cereal rotation as practiced by smallholders in southern Mali reduces soil fertility. We argue that the decline in yields has been caused by an extensification process. Cotton fields expanded rapidly, due to attractive cotton prices in the 1990s, leading to falling investments per ha and cultivation of more marginal lands. These findings also have implications for a political ecology of commodity production and lead us to argue for an open-ended and empirically based ‘critical political ecology’.