Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim
President, Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad (AFPAT) Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is an expert in the adaptation and mitigation of indigenous peoples to climate change. She is a member of the Mbororo pastoralist people in Chad and President of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad (AFPAT). Oumarou Ibrahim is an advocate for the greater inclusion of indigenous people and their knowledge and traditions in the global movement to fight the effects of climate change. Oumarou Ibrahim received the Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award and was appointed as a United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Advocate. She serves as a Member of the United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues; Member of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC); Member of the Advisory Committee to the Secretary-General’s 2019 Climate Action Summit; and Conservation International Senior Indigenous Fellow. In 2019, she was listed by Time Magazine as one of 15 women championing action on climate change.
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim: A Champion for Indigenous Peoples against Climate Change
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is no stranger to international high-level policy discussions on climate change; she been participating for over a decade. As a 33- year-old Indigenous woman from a Mbororo pastoralist community of Chad, Ibrahim made headlines when she was selected to be the speaker representing civil society at the April 22, 2016 signing ceremony of the historic climate agreement reached at the 21st UN Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC- COP21) meeting in Paris in December 2015. She is also a member of the executive committee of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee and a co-chair of the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change. Peuples Autochtones du Tchad (AFPAT), a community-based organization working for the rights and environmental protection of the Indigenous Peule women and people of Chad, Ibrahim has experienced climate change firsthand. Peule Mbororo number an estimated 250,000 nomads in Chad who also practice subsistence farming in the Sahel region, a semiarid region of western and north-central Africa extending from Senegal eastward to The Sudan. “Climate change threatens our basic rights, our cultural values, and the very survival of these communities. For all Indigenous Peoples from any corner of the world, livelihoods are linked to natural resources— for our food and medicine, for everything. So, if there are floods or droughts, the impact is greater for us,” said Ibrahim, while also stressing the importance that traditional Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge can make to mitigation and adaptation. “Traditional knowledge and climate science are both critically important for building resilience of rural communities to cope with climate change, and Indigenous Peoples are ready to share their knowledge to help to mitigate and adapt.” At the Rising Voices: Collaborative Science with Indigenous Knowledge for Climate Solutions conference, in April 2017 in Boulder, Colorado, Ibrahim highlighted the importance Indigenous women play in observing and combating climate change: “Indigenous women are the most affected by climate change, firstly because they are the ones who are collecting food and water to feed their families. They also gather traditional medicine for the health of the communities. They are playing a big role in natural resource conservation and also in protecting traditional knowledge. In my communities and in my regions, women have the knowledge of the water protection, food collection, and land protection through observing certain kind of trees that have to be harvested at specific times . . . they have to feed these trees in order to get a good rainy season. The roles these women hold are very important at the community level and also at the national level. “The women of the communities understand climate change because they are seeing it through all their work. Because we are cattle herders, we have milk. The women see during the dry season that the quantity of the milk is reducing from one liter, it is becoming just like one cup. They are not getting milk every day. They know that this is happening because of climate change. The elders who are holding the traditional knowledge, they are becoming few. To transfer it to the new generation, the mechanism has been changing a lot because young people are migrating from the communities to the big towns. But, some of them who are staying, they learn from the elder peoples where we use the trees.” Ibrahim also shared concrete examples of climate change in Chad: “We used to have three seasons: dry season, rainy season, and cold season. But now the cold season has disappeared; cold season for us it’s not snowing. The rainy season changed a lot because we used to have six to nine months of rain, but now it’s like between two and six months of rain, with heavy rains that are not regular. This is impacting the food security in all the lives of the people; it has created desertification and the loss of biodiversity, and our livestock too. In order to encourage sustainable management of the environment, Ibrahim co-developed a 3D mapping project with elders and herders. One of the key functions of the maps is to give voice to Indigenous Peoples in the national adaptation platforms and other national processes to promote peace, livelihoods, and biological conservation in the face of worsening climate instability, and to solve conflict connected to resource scarcity. She explains, “The 3D participatory mapping [allows] the elders to say all the history about when they were young, what exists there [now], and how the young people can protect the rest of the land. And they are very interested in doing that because they know it is their future and they have to take this knowledge. The 3D participatory mapping also helped to give voice to women in some conservative communities. But still it is not easy, because weather is changing and it’s impacting their mother tongue, transferring the knowledge from one community, from one generation to another one.” Every day in her work, Ibrahim fights to get Indigenous knowledge incorporated into climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. “Where our traditional knowledge and science meet, we say that climate science uses modern knowledge and the forecasting system. But for us, we are just using our information and other factors that we observe. And from this we create our own Indigenous knowledges to adapt. During the rainy season we eat the fruit; at the end of the rainy season, we take the fruit and we break it down. When we break it, we see the liquid inside. If the liquid is abundant, we know that the tree is predicting for the next year; that helps us predict if it’s going to be a good year or not. And we have certain kinds of lizards, when they have a lot of babies . . . in some years there are not a lot of babies because they are not sure of the next generation. That helps us to predict if we are going to have a good rainy season next year or not. If the wind is coming from the south to the north, north to south; if the wind is heavy; if the wind is dry; if it is hot . . . that helps us to say if the rain is going to be heavy or not.” But, she cautions, “the elders who are holding the traditional knowledge are becoming few. To transfer it to the new generation, the mechanism has been changing a lot because young people are migrating from the communities to the big towns. Every day in her work, Ibrahim fights to get Indigenous knowledge incorporated into climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. “Where our traditional knowledge and science meet, we say that climate science uses modern knowledge and the forecasting system. But for us, we are just using our information and other factors that we observe. And from this we create our own Indigenous knowledges to adapt. During the rainy season we eat the fruit; at the end of the rainy season, we take the fruit and we break it down. When we break it, we see the liquid inside. If the liquid is abundant, we know that the tree is predicting for the next year; that helps us predict if it’s going to be a good year or not. And we have certain kinds of lizards, when they have a lot of babies . . . in some years there are not a lot of babies because they are not sure of the next generation. That helps us to predict if we are going to have a good rainy season next year or not. If the wind is coming from the south to the north, north to south; if the wind is heavy; if the wind is dry; if it is hot . . . that helps us to say if the rain is going to be heavy or not.” But, she cautions, “the elders who are holding the traditional knowledge are becoming few. To transfer it to the new generation, the mechanism has been changing a lot because young people are migrating from the communities to the big towns. At the latest COP23 in 2017 in Bonn, Germany, much news coverage was dedicated to Indigenous activism. “Our strategies stand out,” Ibrahim says. “When we come out, we shout. We stand. We use media. We use the internet. We use every possibility that would tell them it’s important. Then, we use peaceful voices to go to ‘friendly’ countries and we organize the Indigenous Peoples’ dialogue between us and the friendly States. [We have] two days to show them clearly why we want to have Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge, why we want to have Indigenous Peoples’ rights, where we want to have it, and how we are going to implement it. During two days we negotiate with them and they say, ‘We are going to support you.’ And then we create a network of people who support us, who advocate for us. It’s not easy. Still it’s a very big fight. But, we have to go through it.”
Hindou Ibrahim: Women’s leadership in Chad
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, 33, is an indigenous woman of the Wodaabe, also called Mbororo, a pastoral people. Ibrahim is one of the founders of the Association of Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad a group fighting to defend the environment and the rights of indigenous people. Ibrahim was chosen to represent civil society during the signing of the Paris Agreement in April 2016, when 175 world leaders gathered at United Nations headquarters in New York to make a global commitment to curbing climate change. The Mbororo, which means “cattle herder”, are an ethnic subgroup of 250,000 members of the Fulani, the largest nomadic people in the world, inhabitants of central and western Africa. In Mbororo culture, few girls are allowed to study. But Ibrahim’s parents allowed her and her sisters to attend school in Chad’s capital. She is the third child in a family of five brothers and sisters. Witnessing how climate change affects the life of her community, which survives from small-scale farming and cattle-raising in the arid Sahel area, in the southern part of the Sahara Desert, Ibrahim has challenged her own people, helping to raise awareness among her village’s elderly chiefs of the value of women’s advice, and to think together about how to adapt to adversity. “Every year, the rainy season gets shorter and the droughts are longer,” she says to an interview for Believe.Earth. “Cows have provided less milk every year.” In 2013, she developed an innovative project in Chad that brought together 500 indigenous herders to map natural resources in the region. While men documented mountainous areas, rivers and places considered sacred, women mapped the springs. The project caught the attention of the national government, which began using the survey to inform public policy. “People gradually accepted me as a leader,” says Ibrahim. “I have been changing the way women are seen and treated in our communities.” A member of the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC) and a of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC), Hindou gave an interview to Believe.Earth during December’s Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) in Bonn, Germany, where she spoke about community management of natural resources. Mbororo people crossing a lake with cattle, towards the next camp. They travel long distances in the semi-arid African Sahel in the search of water (Hindou’s Personal Archive) Two Mbororo men rest in the shade next to their cattle. A semi-nomadic people, the Mbororo’s survival depends on raising animals (Personal Archive/Hindou Oumarou) prev next Believe.Earth (BE) – How does climate change affect the life of the Mbororo? Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim (HI) – We’ve noticed that it has been increasingly difficult to survive. Everything has become more and more difficult for my people. We spend less time in the places we go. Every two or three days, we must move again. The distances we travel are long. We’re about to walk two thousand kilometers (1.24 thousand miles) to get to our next destination. Whole families move, women with their young children as well. We’ve always done that. The difference is that now we must walk longer distances and many end up losing their cattle along the way. Climate change affects our lives in many ways, because the seasons have changed. The rainy season has been shorter each year and the droughts have been longer. Even in the rainy season, rain does not come on a regular basis. Sometimes in a single week it rains so much that it floods our lands, and the following week, the sun is high and there’s no rain at all. This impacts our food security.
BE – Have temperatures also changed?
HI – Yes. During the drought, temperatures are very high. In the summer, the temperature can reach 50ºC (122ºF). But, from November to February, considered a colder season, rains were supposed to come and the temperature used to range from 15º to 20ºC (59ºF to 68ºF). That’s now changed, with temperatures reaching close to 38ºC (101ºF). This rainy season has been reduced to no more than two months, December and sometimes January.
BE – What has changed in the social relationships of the Mbororo?
HI – Responsibilities end up changing. Women are overworked and work harder than men. They are responsible for milking, loading milk and producing food derived from it. But cows have been giving less and less milk. We used to milk two liters in the morning and two in the late afternoon. Nowadays, during drought, we can get only one liter every two days. During the rainy season, we milk every day, but not more than a liter. I’ve seen these changes since I was little; they’ve occured over the course of my lifetime.
BE – What cultural practices express your people’s way life and remain intact regardless of adversity?
HI – We have a traditional practice named pulaku: the care and respect we should have before someone who is older than we are. Another tradition is to be proud of being Mbororo. Pulaku cherishes respect, as well as helping preserve pride in our identity. It is something very particular to our culture. These are the two great principles of our cultural identity. We also have many dances and songs as part of Guérewol, a time every year, at the end of the rainy season, when we organize a cultural event where women and men meet each other. Women choose their husbands. Many people come from very far away to take part in this.
Mbororo women, who are responsible for milking cows, report that climate change has led to a decrease in the milk production that feeds the community (Hindou’s Personal Archive) Mbororo women and children in Cameroon: Marriage and motherhood at an early age and life expectancy of 52 (Photo: Minority Voices)
next BE – Why do you believe that being an indigenous woman in Africa is a double exclusion?
HI – Being a woman in Africa is a great challenge, because everything is guided by men, there is always male leadership. To be an indigenous woman is to be even more marginalized. You are placed in an inferior position and cannot make decisions. Besides, you have so much work to do. It is a great challenge for indigenous women to achieve a leadership role, to be able to speak and be heard by other members of the community.
BE – What did it take for you to be heard?
HI – It all started when I went to school in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. My mom was the one responsible for sending me to school. She fought hard to give me this opportunity. She was challenged by my community, which is very discriminatory. They asked, “Are you going to send a girl to school?” She said, “Of course I’m going to send her to school. I couldn’t study, and I know the importance of school to my children.” At school, I became interested in environmental issues and noticed the impacts of climate change on our people. I tried to talk to our indigenous leaders and show them the evidence of what we were living. My idea was to start helping. I went to the local government to demand schools for our communities because we never had any education for our children. When the community noticed that the government was listening to us and building schools, they began to trust me. They gradually accepted me as a leader. Because of this, I have been changing the way women are seen and treated in our communities. Now, when we hold our meetings, women and men sit together in the same space and discuss problems. We never did this before. In many of our communities, girls still do not go to school and men are still the decision-makers. We are gradually changing that.
Ibrahim during the signing ceremony of the Paris Agreement in April 2016, which was attended by more than fifty heads of state or government (Rick Bajornas/UN)
BE – How did the project of mapping out your community come about?
HI – In 2013, we mapped our community and its resources in a participatory way. Our group had an idea to put all our traditional knowledge in this survey. We brought men and women into the same space. The map translated and preserved our knowledge and passed it on to future generations. It was created in a participatory way so that we could manage and care for our natural resources. In addition, the map served as a basis for thinking about a plan to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Draw the best ways to get to the water springs.
BE – What does it mean for you to make your people’s voice heard in international conferences?
HI – For me, it is not so difficult to connect these worlds. I know our local reality and I know how international decision-making works. My role is to talk about what is really going on and what I think should be done in these forums. I want to be able to contribute to better decisions being made, and to benefit people’s lives. In the case of the Paris agreement, we [indigenous people] tried to provide some models. In forums like [Global Landscapes], we have our own pavilion. As well, sometimes UN agencies want to partner with indigenous organizations. I feel that we still must defend the rights of indigenous people. Often, international leaders do not listen to us or give us the rights we deserve. We’ll keep fighting.
Protecting nature, building peace’:Indigenous activist wins prestigious award
From the deserts of Chad to the halls of the United Nations, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim has been a tireless advocate for indigenous peoples in the fight to solve the climate crisis. In recognition of her unrelenting efforts, Ibrahim, Conservation International’s Senior Indigenous Fellow, was recently awarded the 2019 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award presented by the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “The voices of indigenous people are being heard here — through me, through all of you and through this prize,” said Ibrahim after receiving the award, which included a US$ 100,000 prize. “We are all together. We will win this battle; I am so confident.” A member of the Mbororo indigenous community of southern Chad, Ibrahim saw the adverse impacts of climate breakdown from a young age. As semi-nomadic herders, the Mbororo people historically migrated close to Lake Chad during the dry season in search of water for their cattle. But over the past 50 years, the lake has shrunk by more than 90 percent — from 25,000 square kilometers (9,650 square miles) to less than 2,000 square kilometers (770 square miles). As the lake dries up, internal conflict among communities in Chad and neighboring Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria is intensifying due to competition for access to this shared water source. To engage communities across these countries in collaboration — rather than conflict — Ibrahim developed a three-dimensional mapping system of the region, which enables people from different communities to share their knowledge of natural resources in the area. With these maps, communities can more readily locate and share critical resources such as fresh water. “I’m from a region where people can fight for a piece of land, because their survival — and the survival of their family — depends on it,” said Ibrahim, explaining her mission. “When communities learn to map, protect and share natural resources, all together, they are not only protecting nature, they are also building peace.”
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is a woman of the nomadic Mbororo people, whose flocks and herds have grazed the region around Lake Chad for millennia. Now, that ancient heritage is at risk as planetary heating causes water sources to vanish, pastures to wither and conflicts between farmers and graziers over dwindling resources to multiply. “We are at the front line of climate change,” she says. “When the seasons change, it changes our daily life.” As a committed peacemaker, she sought ways to bring the divided community together to meet the common danger and serve their common needs – and found the answer in participatory mapping. Maps may be flimsy – but they have often been the cause of wars: Ibrahim’s inspiration is to turn them into tools of peace, by drawing antagonized peoples around them to plan a safer, more prosperous future together. We all depend on nature. We interact with our environment. That’s why, for me, I can’t protect human rights without also protecting the environment. Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim When Ibrahim’s mother was young, Lake Chad extended over 25,000 km² of semi-arid country in northern Chad. Today, under the lash of an increasingly hostile climate, it has dwindled to 1,200 km², less than five per cent of its former area. The farmers, fishers and graziers who rely on it are desperate. To test her idea, Ibrahim ran a small project in Baïbokoum, in southwest Chad, and proved mapping to be a valuable, scalable and credible way to decrease tensions between communities and help local authorities manage resources more wisely. She brought together 500 indigenous herders to map natural resources in their region: the men documented ridges and plateaux, rivers and sacred places, while the women mapped the springs. Their advice was adopted by the national government. As a woman leader in a largely patriarchal society, Ibrahim had to fight hard to have her ideas accepted. Core to her success was her view that indigenous peoples are the ones who best know, understand and care for their environment – and should be those first consulted on its needs. Traditional knowledge, combined with modern scientific 2D and 3D mapping methods can build a safer future for all, she believes. “The younger generations, women and men, all come together and build the map, map the knowledge, map the resources and see better how they can share them. “People need to understand that we cannot talk about human rights without talking about environmental rights. We all depend on nature. We interact with our environment. That’s why, for me, I can’t protect human rights without also protecting the environment.” Ibrahim’s commitment to indigenous society, climate resilience and collaborative solutions has earned her international acclaim.