The landlocked West African country of Mali is mostly desert or semidesert. Trans-Saharan caravans once enriched Timbuktu and Gao, trading hubs on the Niger River. Descendants of the empires of Ghana, Malinke, and Songhai came under French rule in the late 19th century and gained independence in 1960. In the 1980s economic woes worsened by drought and famine led to deregulation and privatization. Desertification forces nomadic herders south to the subsistence-farming belt. With increased gold mining operations, Mali is becoming a major gold exporter.