Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim: Bridging worlds through environmental activism

Monica Evans
14 August 2018

BONN, Germany (Landscape News) – When I call up environmental activist and geographer Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim to interview her about her role in the upcoming Global Landscape Forum (GLF) in Nairobi later this month, she’s on the Metro in Paris; the beeps, screeches and automated voices of the urban soundscape punctuate our conversation. The setting seems a far cry from the Mbororo pastoralist community where Hindou grew up in the semi-arid Sahel region of Chad.

But Hindou has been a world-bridger from an early age. When she was young, her family moved from the rural community to Chad’s capital, N’Djamena. There, at her mother’s insistence, she attended school: an opportunity that was unavailable for most of the Mbororo girls she grew up with. However, her mother was determined that she and her siblings would not forget their culture. So, she brought the children back to the Mbororo community during school holidays, where they tended to livestock, milked the cows and sold the milk just like their peers.

Meanwhile, at school in N’Djamena, Hindou became acutely aware – and critical – of the impacts of discrimination. As an Mbororo girl, she stood out from the other students, and she was picked on and excluded as a result. “I asked, why am I getting marginalized?” she recalls. “Why do other people see me so differently to who I am?”

The experience motivated her to speak up for her Mbororo counterparts who had not received the privileges of education that she enjoyed. So in 1999, at the age of 15, she founded the Association of Indigenous Peul Women and Peoples of Chad (AFPAT), a community-based organization focused on rights and environmental protection.

Since then, she’s taken her advocacy work for indigenous peoples, women and the environment to the highest levels: after being involved in the three Rio Conventions on biodiversity, climate change and desertification, she was selected as the speaker representing civil society at the signing of the Paris climate agreement in 2016. She’s former co-chair of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, and a member of the executive committee of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee.

THE LAND MAKES US WHO WE ARE

To Hindou, speaking up for the environment in which the Mbororo live is not a separate issue to that of indigenous women’s and people’s wellbeing. “You cannot protect the people without protecting the landscape they are living in,” she states; and conversely, “you cannot protect the landscape without protecting the people who depend on it.”

The Mbororo, and the landscapes they call home, are urgently in need of such protection. Climate change is seriously impacting ecosystems and livelihoods. As droughts last longer, water sources disappear and new invasive species appear, the pastoralist communities’ cows suffer, and produce less milk.

This has made some areas unfit for habitation, and a number of communities have had to migrate. The impacts of forced migration reach well beyond the practical and economic: “for us as indigenous peoples, our land is also our identity,” explains Hindou. “It’s not only giving us food, but it’s making us who we are.”

A SEAT AT THE TABLE

Hindou is hopeful that landscapes’ importance for indigenous peoples, beyond the resources and services they provide, will feature in the upcoming GLF. At the forum this year, she is playing a major role in helping enhance indigenous peoples’ participation, in line with a joint memorandum of understanding developed at last year’s event. This time, “we are fully involved in the preparation of the event,” she says. “We know exactly what will be happening and what our role will be, and we will build our strategy from the beginning.”

Hindou says this level of involvement for indigenous peoples in the preparation and execution of the GLF represents a marked departure from that which they usually experience in other, similar forums. At U.N. events, she explains, only representatives of recognized countries can participate officially in negotiations. So, since many indigenous peoples’ nationhood is not formally recognized, their involvement in decision-making processes is limited in these gatherings.

At the GLF, indigenous peoples participate in a similar way to government representatives, so it’s a step in the right direction as far as Hindou is concerned. She’s particularly excited about the ministerial event, whereby indigenous peoples and ministers will “sit down together and have lunch and conversations.”

Hindou is hopeful that the forum will help to cement indigenous people’s place in protecting the landscapes they live in. “It’s not just about having indigenous peoples attending these events and telling beautiful stories, or talking about the impacts [of environmental degradation and climate change] on the landscape,” she says. “We want to be at the [decision-making] tables, not only on the menus.”

AMPLIFYING WOMEN’S VOICES

Hindou is also looking at ways to push indigenous women’s involvement in the landscape discussions. It’s a big challenge to get indigenous women’s voices heard in these contexts, she says: “We have always been put in the background, from the community level up. We’re trying to change that, but women still have to fight to get their place.”

While many U.N.-backed events and projects now mandate women’s involvement, this can prove tokenistic: often, says Hindou, organizers are “just counting the numbers of women attending the event, but not how it directly impacts the life of these women, or how they are involved in the design.” When it comes to decision-making and implementation, she says women are frequently left behind. “Yes, there are specific projects out there now that target women,” she acknowledges. “And that’s good, but it’s not the only thing we are asking for.”

Hindou has high hopes that the GLF will make space for more inclusive discussions and processes: “I want this to be the forum where we can be involved at all levels, and participate in making the right decisions,” she says. “If we say we need to change the world, we need also to change how we are participating.”