‘Climate change impact is doubled if you are a woman and you are indigenous’

18 Jan 2019

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim. Image: Embassy of France in Ireland

Environmental activist Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim describes the harsh reality of climate change for indigenous women.

Lake Chad is disappearing before our very eyes. “From 1960, it was 25,000km square. In 2001, it’s shedding to 2,000 to 2,500,” explained Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, referring to data from NASA’s observations of the region. “In 40 years, the water evaporated 90pc.”

With populations growing in the surrounding countries of Chad, Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria and even the farther Central African Republic, Ibrahim said there are now about 40m people living around and depending on what’s left of Lake Chad. We spoke during an event in Trinity College Dublin, co-hosted by the Institute of International and European Affairs and the Embassy of France in Ireland, which sought to generate creative responses to climate change.

Ibrahim, a climate activist and president of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad, comes from a community of pastoralists who move from place to place with the seasons to make the most of the natural resources around them. “During the dry season, we are around the lake because there is water and pasture. During the rain season, we go far away from the lake because all the vegetation spaces get flooded, and then we have to go far to get water and pasture. And then we start again following the patterns to come back.”

Naturally, climate change can dramatically impact this way of life. For women, Ibrahim explained, climate change impact is “double, because you are indigenous and you are a woman”.

Indigenous people’s struggle

In her own community, Ibrahim has seen protracted dry seasons and decreasing milk yields with “quantity reduced from the litres to the cup”. There are sacrifices to be made, and it’s often the women of the community who bear them out. They provide for the children, the elders and the cattle. They process the milk for the market and use the money they make to buy cereals to feed the community – all the while putting themselves last in the pecking order. “It’s impacting their social life, their social health and also the economy and the communities,” said Ibrahim.

Climate change is also directly impacting the health of these vulnerable communities as it has become harder to source the natural remedies they use for medicine. “You have to walk very far away to get them, or some of them disappear forever,” said Ibrahim. Again, “It’s not the man who has the responsibility to do it, it is the woman.”

On top of that there is the collection of water, cooking and washing clothes, all to be done within the shrinking means available while good water sources inch farther and farther away. And as the water shrinks away, both the people and their cattle are suffering from an upswell of disease. There are increasing epidemics of malaria and cholera to contend with, as well as new bacteria causing unfamiliar problems. “It’s really very new, so we do not know the name of what we are experiencing because we did not use to have them,” said Ibrahim.

A woman in a colourful patterned dress and headpiece talks to another woman amid a busy event.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim explores the Marketplace of Ideas at the Creative Responses to Climate Change event. Image: Embassy of France in Ireland

Who are the indigenous people?

The United Nations (UN) estimates that there are more than 370m indigenous people living in more than 90 countries worldwide. While they represent just 5pc of the global population, they are custodians of 80pc of the world’s biodiversity.

“We have our own social cultural regions recognised officially by the UN,” said Ibrahim, listing them off as Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, North America, the Pacific, Russia and Eastern Europe, and the Arctic. “Those seven regions are based on our social cultural dimension. So you have indigenous peoples from ice, from forest, from desert, from mountain, from all these places.”

Ibrahim previously co-chaired the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change, which established their priorities on climate change, leading to five explicit references to indigenous people in the Paris Agreement.

“Our common point is we need the right of indigenous peoples to get respected because most of the climate solutions are impacting our land, territories and resources, and we are keeping [80pc] of the world’s biodiversity,” said Ibrahim. “If they respect our rights, we can [better] protect this environment.”

Not victims, but protagonists

However, Ibrahim does not want indigenous people to simply be seen as victims in this global struggle. “We are not only the victim but we have the solutions through our indigenous people’s traditional knowledge that we develop since centuries.”

In her own community, for example, pastoralists know how to use the direction of the wind or the position of a star in the sky to understand seasonal shifts. Their intimate localised knowledge of their natural environment gives them incredible skill in interpreting changes, mitigating climate disruption and managing resources sustainably.

“We need this force of knowledge,” said Ibrahim. “We need … full and effective participation of all the seven regions’ members into this very complex system of UN where they are taking decisions on our life and our survival.”

An example of what local engagement can bring is the 3D participatory mapping project, which trained pastoralist activists from Chad and other East African countries on the basics of cartography and 3D modelling. Nomadic and semi-nomadic people spent days coding 3D maps with their indigenous traditional knowledge of land use, routes of cattle migration, features of the ecosystem and biodiversity.

According to Ibrahim, this mix of science knowledge and traditional knowledge provided much more detailed information than satellite photos. For example, this project raised the issue of sedentary farmers blocking routes to water for nomadic farmers and their herds. This began a mediation process between the two communities, which Ibrahim praised at the time.

A matter of international security

Depleting resources increases competition, which has severe implications. “Climate change impact is driving insecurity around the region and conflict between communities,” said Ibrahim. Fighting, sometimes to the death, has spread tragedy throughout the Sahara region but governments don’t want to get involved.

Yet throwing a blind eye to this unrest is a security risk. Ibrahim warned that these unresolved issues contribute to the growth of militant groups such as Boko Haram, which offer money or a sense of empowerment to people who feel left behind and disillusioned. In losing their natural resources, people are now fighting for their survival.

“Why do [Boko Haram] continuously have people who fight for them? Why do they continuously have people following their ideology? You failed somewhere so you need to think about where did you fail,” Ibrahim challenged.

She spoke about this at the UN Security Council and though she felt they understood the need for integrated solutions, she is unsure if it’s high enough on the list of international priorities. As far as she’s concerned, “They cannot talk about other issues without talking about how they can resolve the environmental issues related to security.”

A man in a grey suit, a woman in a colourful patterned dress and headpiece and an older woman in a blazer pose together.

From left: French ambassador Stéphane Crouzat, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim and former Irish president Mary Robinson at the Creative Responses to Climate Change event. Image: Embassy of France in Ireland

For Ibrahim, at least, the journey towards climate justice is just beginning. She stressed that climate change action is not just planting trees and building wells. “It’s also a land issue, so you need to involve all these stakeholders, sit down and talk to them.” These “ready solutions” must be built with the involvement of the communities, sustainably and suitable to their lifestyle.

“Being a world leader is not just sitting around the round tables in New York or somewhere with hundreds of bodyguards,” she said. She wants these leaders to go and listen “as a human being” to others “who even do not know there is a country called US, or New York or a United Nations”. Then, they can build solutions based on what they see and what they hear from real people.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.