Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim with Getrude Clement, youth representative from Tanzania, and Leonardo DiCaprio at the signature ceremony for the Paris Agreement at the UN General Assembly Hall in New York (Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

‘We are the victims but we are also the solution’: Indigenous climate activist Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim

She was recently named by Time as one of the 15 women leading the fight against climate change. Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim tells Kera Sherwood-O’Regan about the effects of the changing climate on the village she grew up in in Chad, especially on women and girls, and what spurred her to action.

As a young indigenous woman, walking into the COP 23 Climate Conference in Bonn in 2017 surrounded by politicians and climate experts was nerve-racking, to say the least. What put me at ease was joining the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus, and the person leading the room, who was referred to as Madame Co-Chair. 

Over the following weeks, I got to know Madame Co-Chair a little better, but mainly in that saying “bonjour” in the corridors while internally trying to think of something impressive sort of way. Otherwise known as Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, she is someone that commands a level of respect usually reserved for heads of state and to be quite honest, I spent an embarrassing amount of time figuring out if she was, in fact, a prime minister or even royalty. She has a positive energy like no other, and a unique way of challenging people, while always doing so in a way that respects that person, their mana, and moves the conversation forward positively.

She is a busy woman, especially having just been named one of TIME Magazine’s 15 Women Leading the Fight Against Climate Change on top of running a session at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, but she has a profoundly warm character, and is the kind of person who will give time to everyone, never letting on how busy she is, even calling me for this interview from the other side of the world the minute she stepped off a long-haul flight to New York City. 

The author (second from left) with Oumarou Ibrahim (in yellow) at COP 24, the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Photo: Supplied)

“I always have time for my sisters,” she tells me generously.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is an indigenous climate activist and geographer from the Mbororo pastoralist community in Chad, and is deeply passionate about the rights of indigenous women and girls. Having set up a community organisation at age 15, and realising the connection between women’s rights and environmental rights, she has been involved in climate action ever since, and is now one of the most recognised and respected climate activists in the African region and abroad.

She says, “I got involved in climate change because of my community. We have a lake called Lake Chad which was, when I was younger, around 10,000 kilometres square. When I was growing up the lake was shrinking. Now the lake has lost about 90% of its water, so growing up and seeing, with my own eyes, nature shrinking and seeing my community struggling, for me it was normal to fight against climate change.”

Ibrahim’s activism is motivated by seeing how decline in natural resources disproportionately affects women in her community, who are primarily responsible for milking their cattle and selling remaining milk to meet their other needs. As a child she would spend school holidays in her community with her grandmother, walking seven to 10 kilometres and back each day to send milk around the other villages. During this time she noticed the decline in milk yield, and the impacts it had for the women and girls.

“When we used to milk during the dry season it was two times a day, morning and in the evening. Now it’s only once every two days. The first day of milk is for our needs and selling, the second day we leave the milk for the baby cows.

There is not enough resources to feed all the community, so the priority is given to the children and older peoples, and it’s the women who miss out.”

Oumarou Ibrahim speaks during COP24 in Katowice, Poland in December 2018 (Photo: Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto)

In an attempt to overcome the shortfall of milk supply, some of the men have headed into the cities – attempting to get small jobs with the hopes of sending money back home. However, Ibrahim says this also adds pressure for women, leaving them to fulfil a “double role” while men are absent from the community.

“It’s the women like my mum and my grandma who are the first to wake up and the last to sleep… when the climate change impacts become more visible, for them it’s doubling the work.”

The changing climate and water shortage also has wider impacts on food and water security, and women from her community are not only having to collect drinking water from the same limited sources as animals, but are now facing conflict with others trying to access what little is left.

These water sources are shrinking very quickly, which is causing conflict to collect it. So then we’ve found that immediately women are the most vulnerable.”

Seeing these changes happen in real time, and recognising her increased possibilities since attending school (an anomaly amongst her peers at home), Ibrahim was motivated to establish AFPAT – The Peul Indigenous Women and Peoples Association of Chad, to promote the rights of women and girls in the Mbororo communities.

“[My classmates] would say I’m smelling like milk, I’m coming from a marginalised community and all this. So when I grew a little bit I thought that I need to fight for the chance of the other girls who didn’t get the chance to go to school.

“Then to fight for these girls’ rights, I realised I can’t fight for human rights only without fighting for the rights of the environment that we are depending on and need. So immediately, human rights and Indigenous Peoples’ rights and environmental protection came together as the objectives of the community-based organisation we created.”

She maintains a fierce sense of pride in this community organisation, and stresses that it has remained local and community focused, rather than morphing into a large NGO.

Twenty years later and still very much involved in the organisation she set up, Ibrahim now fills her days on multiple governance boards and at various international meetings to promote indigenous rights. Her work on climate change and Indigenous Peoples’ rights at the United Nations has included a stint as the co-chair for the IIPFCC (International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change), where she has successfully advocated for the rights of indigenous peoples to be included in the Paris Agreement; and being chosen to represent civil society at the signing of this landmark agreement. Other accolades as a geographer and public speaker make for impressive reading.

While she can command a room like no other, her advocacy at the United Nations hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

“It’s very difficult to be indigenous… a woman… coming from developing countries… marginalised communities… and black… in the middle of a crowd of white men in suits,” she says.

“In the negotiations you’re a feature and they don’t understand you or what you’re talking about because they’ve only maybe seen it on the TV or they just learnt something about it in school… so that’s been a big difficulty as an indigenous woman negotiating at the international level.” 

Having her expertise and lived experience recognised has been a challenge, as has been convincing negotiators and politicians that indigenous peoples should not be viewed as passive “victims” of climate change, but as experts who have solutions and who can drive action.

Speaking of the onerous negotiation process, she says, “When you come into the negotiation room, people are arguing about just one word. For example, they will say, “Oh I prefer ‘must’, then “No, ‘may!’, then ‘No, ‘should!’… It’s just wording. It’s nothing! … So at the end of the day you think we are wasting our time on something really ridiculous, and we need to take a decision because it’s about people’s survival and these women deserve a life, they deserve a solution because they never created these climate impacts.”

The rules and regulations of the United Nations also prohibit direct intervention from civil society, leaving little space for Indigenous Peoples to directly intervene. “If you are a woman and you raise your hand and you want to talk as a woman, you can’t do that, because you are representing a state. All the rules and regulations are that states are driving…”

“You want to stand in the middle of the tables and tell them ‘Listen! I’m done with this. If you want to keep talking, you have to come to my home and live there!’ So for a long time I was always saying if I really got power somewhere, I would take all these negotiators back home, put them there for a week, and I think then they would change their minds and really negotiate for our futures.”

Despite the struggles and the pressure on her as one of the few indigenous women at the negotiations, Ibrahim says knowing that her community and other Indigenous Peoples around the world were counting on her has kept her motivated throughout.

This week, she’s in New York at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, and even exhausted after long travels, her conviction and clarity in her goals resonates through crackly Facebook audio:

“I’m here in New York to make the world understand three things: Firstly, to make them understand the emergency is here. [It] isn’t just a speech, but we are feeling it. We are living this emergency, so it’s time for solutions.

“The second thing is to tell them it’s time to move from discourse to actions… to remind them we are here. Indigenous Peoples are here. We are not here just to support nice speeches and clap for them. We are here to tell them they need to take action and those actions have to be implemented right now.

“The third one is to tell them that as Indigenous Peoples, we are the most impacted, but we are not only the victims. We are also the solutions… We are showing them an initiative… and offering them to come with us to implement it – our solutions are nature-based, and based on our traditional knowledge.”

The stakes for this summit are high, and Ibrahim is clear that this is going to require a conjoint effort – from all state parties to the Paris Agreement, through to the private sector who are responsible for the emissions. She warns that it is no time for further deliberation, they need to get on board now.

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“If not, I’m afraid they will be responsible for extinctions – of Indigenous Peoples’ nations, Indigenous Peoples’ culture… identity. And that would be a tragedy never seen before on this planet.”

While it’s an ominous thought, Ibrahim is strong in her belief, and quietly assured in the possibility of drawing together for transformative change. She’s already been invited directly by the secretary general, António Guterres, to share the Indigenous peoples’ action plan, and she challenges states and the private sector alike to join indigenous leaders in driving it to keep the world below 1.5 degrees of warming.

She also has a hopeful message for other climate activists and indigenous women around the world, “Never give up… I am here, and so many other indigenous women are here with you and share your objective. If you feel you are falling down, get back up, because each generation we are going further than the ones before us.”

The United Nations Climate Action Summit is currently under way in New York, and brings together leaders from states and civil society to develop clear actions going forward, ahead of the UN COP25 Climate Negotiations in Santiago de Chile.


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