Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Subsistence production seems little changed from precolonial times. The Barma still cultivate cereals and vegetables using swidden and flood-recession (i.e., planting as the flood recedes) techniques. The staples are sorghums and millets; peanuts, cotton, and okra are also grown. Barma who reside by streams fish. Arabs and Fulani are primarily livestock breeders: they raise cattle, sheep, and goats on open range. They also grow some cereals, generally by slash-and-burn techniques. All foodstuffs are increasingly grown as cash crops as well as for subsistence. French attempts to make cotton an important cash crop failed during the colonial period. Cutting wood to sell in urban areas is common.
Industrial Arts. Bagirmi had a reputation for fine craftsmanship in precolonial times. Its textiles and leatherwork were especially appreciated, but these have both largely disappeared.
Trade. There was trans-Saharan, interregional, and local trade in precolonial Bagirmi. Trans-Saharan commerce involved the exchange of slaves, captured to the south of Bagirmi, for sumptuary goods and weapons produced in the circum-Mediterranean area. Interregional commerce involved the exchange of commodities produced in different West African ecological zones. Kola from the forest might be exchanged in Bagirmi for salt from the desert. Local trade involved the exchange of subsistence and craft goods produced in particular localities, and especially included the barter of dairy products for cereal products. Trans-Saharan slaving was conducted by Bagirmi officials and professional slave traders, who normally were not Bagirmi. The interregional trade tended to be in the hands of professional merchants, many of whom were not Bagirmi. Local trade was conducted by the producers themselves. These commercial patterns were greatly altered in the twentieth century. One major change was the suppression of the trans-Saharan trade and its replacement by one dominated by European trading houses.
Division of Labor. In the 1970s Barma men had large fields on which they produced cereals, whereas women had smaller plots on which vegetables were cultivated. Men fish, trade, and build houses; women do the vast bulk of the domestic chores, produce crafts, and are the primary marketers of foodstuffs.
Land Tenure. The precolonial system of land tenure facilitated, rather than restricted, access to land. Membership in social groups guaranteed access to land, which could neither be bought nor sold. Today there are coexisting tenure systems: the traditional ones—the specifics of which tend to vary with region and ethnic group—and modern land law, based upon European conceptions of tenure. Powerful individuals can use the latter system to acquire freehold land privately.