An interview by Anne-Sophie Garrigou
Born in Chad in 1984, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim spent her former years between Chad’s capital city of N’Djamena where she studied, and her holidays with her community, the indigenous Mbororo people, who are traditionally nomadic farmers. Today, the environmental activist and geographer is the Coordinator of the Association of Peul Women and Autochthonous Peoples of Chad (AFPAT), a community-based organisation she created in 1999 to promote the rights of girls and women in the Mbororo community and inspire leadership and advocacy in environmental protection.
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is an expert in the adaptation of indigenous peoples to climate change. Traveling to one international summits to another, she dedicates her life to raising awareness among the world’s leaders about the rights of indigenous peoples and climate change. Here we talk about environmental and indigenous rights, climate justice, and about what it really means to leave no one behind in the energy transition.
"If we don’t take action against climate change, it’ll be my people who will disappear and disappearing with them will be not just their culture but also their precious knowledge of the environment. "
Where does it come from, your commitment to the fight against global warming and your passion for defending the interests of indigenous people?
For indigenous peoples, there is no difference between the environment and life. We are connected to nature, we find our resources in nature, we protect it; nature is completely intertwined with our culture and way of life. My community, the Mbororo people, are nomadic farmers who practice large-scale transhumance (the seasonal herding of livestock to fresh grazing grounds) in the Sahel region every year following the rhythm of the season. In doing so we, along with our herds, contribute to looking after the ecosystem, fertilising the soil and thereby protecting biodiversity. But for the past 10 years, maybe longer, the environment has been rapidly changing. In my community, the older generations no longer recognise the seasons. We are confronted by intense droughts, heatwaves, and then, all of a sudden, by floods. This is climate change and its social, economic and cultural consequences are hitting my community hard. 20 years ago, our cows produced milk twice a day during the dry season. Today, because of climate change, we can milk them only once every two days.
That’s why I have decided to fight. Because if we don’t take action against climate change, it’ll be my people who will disappear and disappearing with them will be not just their culture but also their precious knowledge of the environment.
I saw you at COP during a session with Arnold Schwarzenegger and the difference between his privileged speech from the perspective of a white male (advocating the importance of investing in future technologies) and your harrowing testimony on the impact climate change has on communities dependent on natural resources for their survival (such as the Mbororo people to whom you belong), was astounding. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
I do not want to pit modern technologies and the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples against one another as we need both. But I think that if we believe technology alone is going to save us then we are totally mistaken.
In my community, a grandmother is far more useful than a smartphone. Reading the clouds, listening to the wind, she can tell you that in several hours it’s going to rain. She can also predict the arrival of the dry season by observing the birds. In Chad, official meteorological forecasts don’t always reach rural areas. So who do they consult, the farmers who need to know if they can plant their crops? Whether or not it’s going to rain tomorrow? They turn to the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples.
This connection to nature is precious. It allows us to take care of the environment so that, in return, it takes care of us. I have developed projects wherein traditional knowledge and science complement each other because, in order to protect the climate, we will undoubtedly need artificial intelligence but over and above this we will need the intelligence of indigenous peoples.
You are the representative, the ‘voice’, of indigenous peoples during international conferences on climate change. Could you briefly explain to us why it is essential that the rights of indigenous peoples are recognised and stated when laws on energy transition are being formulated?
Indigenous peoples are the first victims of global warming because they live directly off nature. And with that comes other injustices. For example, my community is marginalised because we are nomads. We do not live in the same place or in the same region all year round. It’s a real headache in terms of administration.
But this is sometimes also a pretext for stealing our land from us. There are instances where certain people seek to develop industrial farming to ensure food security in the face of extreme climate events. In order to do this, they close off the transhumance corridors that we have been using for centuries. Or they close off the ponds and watering holes that we have always used.
In order to avoid these injustices, indigenous peoples must be included in climate policies and we must be integral in the formulation of laws. If we think that through industrial farming and pesticides we will be able to feed populations, we are sorely mistaken. Look at what this kind of farming has done in Europe and in the United States. On the contrary, we must formulate laws that protect our way of life, our traditional farming methods and indigenous peoples. These are the people who, in the Sahel, are fighting the advance of the desert. Likewise in the Pacific Isles where it is the indigenous peoples who are most effectively protecting the coral reefs. And the same is true of indigenous peoples in the rainforests.
"In my community, a grandmother is far more useful than a smartphone. Reading the clouds, listening to the wind, she can tell you that in several hours it’s going to rain. She can also predict the arrival of the dry season by observing the birds."
I sometimes have the impression that, during these climate conferences, we talk a lot about technological progress (sustainable innovation etc) and very little about the knowledge and skills of indigenous peoples in regard to protecting nature. Is this something that strikes you as well? And can you explain to us the importance of preserving and disseminating this knowledge?
Traditional knowledge is recognised in the Paris Agreement because we fought for that. Indigenous peoples are the first in line to be affected by the consequences of climate change but we don’t want to be seen as just victims—we have solutions. For centuries now we have lived in harmony with the environment and we have learned to take care of it.
Often it’s in regions inhabited by indigenous peoples that biodiversity is at its richest because we take care of it. Nature gives us food. Moreover, it gives us the plants that we use in traditional medicine, often the only solution we have for treating ourselves. Such knowledge will be useful if we are to be successful in fighting climate change. For example, in the Sahel, farmers’ herds fertilise the fields during transhumance and contribute to the fight against desertification. Across the world, we know that we have to protect exceptional ecosystems that themselves protect against the effects of climate change. What offers the best protection against rising sea levels? Coral reefs or healthy mangroves?
Additionally, our knowledge can serve to find solutions in the face of new climate conditions. Our ancestors have taught us what plants we can eat and where they’re located following a hurricane in the Pacific Isles. We also know which plant varieties are the most resistant to drought. But all this knowledge must be protected. It is passed on verbally from generation to generation and if our people disappear, this knowledge will disappear with them. The best way of protecting it is to respect indigenous peoples and their fundamental rights, especially the right to land.
At COP21 we created a platform for indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge. This will effectively enable us to put in place the mechanisms for dissemination and practical application of this knowledge. All this of course whilst respecting our rights and in particular, those rights recognised in the International Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
During these discussions, we often talk about ‘leaving no one behind’. In concrete terms, what does that mean to you?
For me, leaving no one behind means listening and working with those who have never had the chance to go to school, who live far away from the western world and yet can bring so much. In my community, fewer than one in 10 girls attends school. We have nearly nothing, no hospitals, no schools, no identity cards and no birth certificates. Yet we are not poor. We are rich in terms of our environment, our way of life, our culture. I had the opportunity to go to school and today I occasionally get to speak on behalf of those we never hear.
There is a huge gap between the experience of ‘real people’ living on the ground and what happens in the meetings and negotiation rooms during international climate conferences. Often, the negotiators are far from being able to imagine the impact of the climate crisis on affected populations. Can you explain to us your role here and how you fight to make the voices of these populations heard in these conferences?
Fundamentally, I fight for those people who don’t wear a suit and tie, who have never flown by aeroplane, for whom the television and the internet are non-existent. I fight so that we can listen to them, work with them. This is valid at a local level certainly, but it’s valid also in the context of large-scale international negotiations where some leaders would be inspired by listening to traditional indigenous leaders. Just as they do from listening to the directors of large companies.
Additionally, I want help for those who, in their day-to-day lives, are living the consequences of climate change. For years we have been promised billions of dollars to finance the adaptation to climate change. I can tell you that up to now, no funding has reached my community. I work with people who never receive international aid and I want to help them so that finally we can develop human-scale projects.
“Fundamentally, I fight for those people who don’t wear a suit and tie, who have never flown by aeroplane, for whom the television and the internet are non-existent. I fight so that we can listen to them, work with them.”
What has been the most difficult moment for you since working to alert the world to the urgency of responding to this climate crisis?
There have been many difficult moments because it’s always a fight getting a reason to prevail. But, the most difficult time is when I visit my community who have high hopes for the international decisions which they think will change their lives through good decision-making and swift action. Yet I know the reality, these decision-makers are so slow and even refuse to accept the reality of needing to act. For example, the 1.5°C report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was rejected by the United States and Saudi Arabia at COP24 last year (2018) in Katowice. But it was these very countries who had commissioned the report. It makes me want to cry, seeing into both these worlds. That of my people on the one hand and on the other that of the negotiators. On the one hand hope, on the other disappointment. That really is the hardest.
Preserving/creating environmental rights (climate justice) for populations affected by climate change is your priority and you have explained that it was a question of survival for your people and their identity. Protection of the environment doesn’t work without protecting people. Can you tell us a little bit more about this fight you’re leading and your aims?
In Africa, we have a saying: ‘When a grandfather passes away, it’s a whole library that disappears’. Today it is entire populations who are under threat of disappearing. I think of my brothers and sisters from the Pacific Isles who watch the sea rise and engulf the land of their ancestors. I think of my friends, the Sami people in the Arctic who ask themselves whether their children and their grandchildren will know the pack ice. I think of my colleagues in Brazil from whom we steal land to cut down forests and plant soya in order to feed livestock destined for industrialised countries. In destroying the planet, humanity is destroying its history and indigenous peoples are the first to suffer when the planet is in danger.
Up to now, we have spoken a lot about negative things, but I would like to know what it is that gives you hope today?
I would say that what gives me great hope is the courage of my people and of many other indigenous peoples to develop solutions for their survival. As does acceptance of the need for indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge and skills to be recognised in international spheres, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) etc. But what also inspires me is the ‘call to action’ from young people across the world.
Is there anything you would like to add?
We must never forget the role of women which is vital in the fight against climate change at every level, especially in rural places. Women are innovative and they protect the community and the environment at the same time. But they are also the first to suffer.
“In destroying the planet, humanity is destroying its history and indigenous peoples are the first to suffer when the planet is in danger.”
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim has been an advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples and the protection of the environment for over 15 years. She is leading a community-based organisation in Chad, AFPAT, which is active in most international Sustainable Development Goal areas, including climate change, biodiversity, desertification, health & education.
Translation by Lara Heledd Davies-Jones