Agriculture and livestock husbandry have long been the backbone of the economy, accounting for about 45 percent of the GDP in 1998 and providing the bulk of export revenue. Arable land comprises of only 2 percent of which permanent pastures comprise 25 percent, forests and woodland 6 percent, and the rest other uses. Only 780 square kilometers (301 square miles) was irrigated in 1993. There are no permanent crops. The most disruptive natural hazard is drought. But despite drought, Mali has produced agricultural surpluses for many years. Other significant environmental issues include deforestation, soil erosion, desertification , inadequate supplies of drinkable water, and poaching.
Cotton is Mali's most significant crop; Mali is one of the largest producers of cotton in Africa, after Egypt and Sudan. Cotton production is almost all based on small-scale family farms, with village cooperatives in the south-east being coordinated by the highly influential parastatal Compagnie Malienne pour le Developpement des Textiles (CMDT), in which the French Compagnie Francaise pour le Developpement des Textiles (CFDT) owns a 40 percent share. While the World Bank has pressed for liberalization of the sector with a view to increasing farmers' returns, the CMDT has countered by arguing that under the current system production has more than doubled since 1993.
Most Malian households depend on wood and charcoal for fuel, making the forestry sector of economic and ecological significance. With increasing population, the issue of deforestation will take on an increasing importance. Tree crop products, produced mostly by small-scale gatherers, include fruits (mainly mangoes), a wide range of traditional medicines, and shea-nut butter (karite). Export potential is considerable but is hampered by lack of investment in processing and packaging.
Fishing is mostly artisanal (small-scale) and is vulnerable to drought as well as changes brought about by dam construction and urban pollution run-off into rivers. It is mostly undertaken on the river Niger. The annual catch has amounted to roughly 100,000 metric tons in recent years, of which about 20 percent is exported mostly to urban centers in the Côte d'Ivoire, where a number of Malian fishermen and fish distributors have settled over the years.
Towards the end of the century, Mali has benefitted from a much more stable food supply than during the crisis years of the 1970s and 1980s, when Mali experienced 2 severe droughts. Since the late 1980s the government's role has been reduced to a regulatory one, but crises and slowdowns in supply remain a potential threat in a country as vulnerable to sudden climatic reverses as Mali.
Large-scale animal husbandry takes place mostly in the north and around the Niger inland delta, whereas most food and cash crops are produced in the southern regions. Livestock production is principally by small-holders and is thought to account for about 20 percent of the GDP in an average year. Livestock and meat product exports have suffered since the mid-1980s, mostly from unrestrained dumping by European Union countries of highly subsidized beef on West African coastal markets. Harassment from customs officials and a lack of refrigeration and bulk transport infrastructure have also constrained the sector.