"It is only when we stand together that indigenous people can really make a difference," says Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim of the IIPFCC indigenous peoples' initiatInive.
Photo: Espen Røst

- If I destroy nature, I destroy myself as well. I lose my dignity

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim grew up in a nomadic society where climate change is something people experience at first hand. She believes that people in developed countries have to hit the brakes. "You have to change how you live your lives," says the indigenous peoples' leader from Chad.

This article was written by Espen Røst. It was originally published in the Norwegian magazine Bistandsaktuelt.

Nothing could have prepared her for the direction her life would take when she grew up in a nomadic society in Chad.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim's heart is with the M'bororo people. She was sent to school in the capital, N'Djamena, and ended up with the world's leaders at the climate change conference in Paris.

This 30-year-old is on the global steering committee of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC), and is fighting global warming on behalf of the indigenous people of the world.

An unusual decision

- I was lucky that my mother decided to send me to school. It was an unusual decision which created quite a stir in the local community, but which was very valuable for me. I have always made a point of returning to my people. Milking cows, selling milk, playing my part.

- Now that I am straddling two worlds, I also see how my people are struggling. I see that climate change is also changing our migration patterns. We have to adapt. There are fewer places where our livestock can graze, and it is harder to find water.

She tells us of a marginalized people. Whose children do not receive schooling. Where there are no health services.

- We have to fight for our most basic rights. But I cannot work for rights without talking about the climate. Because for us these things are tightly linked.

She still lives a double life, as a leader of indigenous people with the whole world as her arena, and as part of a nomadic society in one of the world's poorest countries.

The hope of the M'bororo people

- Speaking on behalf of indigenous people during such global processes is a great responsibility. I travelled home to my people before the COP21 climate conference in Paris. I brought a French TV production team with me; they wanted to see how we live, and how climate change affects my people. I will never forget the answer given by many of the people they spoke to. They said, "Hindou is our only hope".

- I hadn't realized it before – that they pinned such hopes on my work. The responsibility is overwhelming.

Ibrahim also represents the regional organisation Association des Femmes Peules Autochtones du Tchad (AFPAT) and the Indigenous Peoples Coordinating Committee (IPACC), which until recently received funding from Norwegian Church Aid. Moreover, she was selected as an African representative to UNCCD.

The 30-year-old, who Bistandsaktuelt met at a café in Oslo, works both locally and internationally to improve the rights of indigenous people, and believes that regional cooperation is critical in order to stop deforestation in Central Africa.

This was also one of her main messages when she met State Secretary Lars Andreas Lunde of the Ministry of Climate and Environment this week.

- Norway's commitment to indigenous peoples has been vital. It is important for me to say this. But it is even more important to say that it must maintain this focus, so that the voices of indigenous people continue to be heard. This way we will also be able to continue the international fight against climate change, says Ibrahim, and explains that she proposed new mechanisms to the state secretary where indigenous people participate on their own terms outside the umbrella term of "civil society".

Through its rainforest initiative, the Norwegian government has promised a full USD100 million to secure the rights of indigenous peoples in tropical rainforests up to 2020.

Success in Paris

- We need to draw on our regional networks in order for indigenous people, who after all are a minority, to have a voice in the battle against climate change. Indigenous peoples are very rarely included at the national level through civil society, says Ibrahim, and mentions the Pygmies of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as an example.

- It is only when we stand together that indigenous people can really make a difference.

Ibrahim believes that the delegation of indigenous people was very successful at the Paris summit in December.

- We met several heads of state, including the French president. The next day he invited us to the presidential palace, and we were able to present aspects that were critical to securing a sustainable climate agreement. Being heard by the world's leaders is fantastic, but the most important thing is that we were successful in incorporating "five concrete messages" about indigenous people into the final text of the agreement. This has never happened before.

- Five messages in one document. Why was that important?

- Because it means that we must be consulted in connection with implementation of the climate agenda. And consultation isn't the same thing as being informed. It means that we have to be involved in the decision-making process, help shape the future of our local communities and of the Earth. This is a victory, because this agreement is not the conclusion of something. The Paris Agreement is merely the beginning of a very long process.

Taking care of the home

- You believe that indigenous people serve as guardians for more sustainable use of the Earth's land?

- OK, let me give you an example, says Ibrahim, and responds with a rhetorical question.

- If someone says that they want two rooms in your house, would you let them have them? Nature is our home. It is where we collect water, forage for food, and find our medicine. And just like you, we take care of our home.

She points out that almost everybody now agrees that man-made climate change is an enormous problem for life on Earth. That conservation of nature is the key to slowing down the process.

- Someone has to make sure that nature is not destroyed, and I am better at caring for the forest than you. Simply because I are more dependent on nature to survive, at least for now. It's that simple.

Ibrahim's statements are supported by research that shows that deforestation of the world's remaining rainforests – which is causing enormous greenhouse gas emissions – is less in forests where indigenous peoples have right of use, compared with other areas.

Breaking the chain

- I'm a M'bororo. What does that mean? That some principles are essential, they are embedded in our culture. This includes taking care of the people around us, and living in harmony with nature. Because everything is connected.

- If I protect a tree, that tree protects the soil in which it stands. The soil protects the water, which in turn protects fish, and so forth. If you interfere with this cycle, you break the entire chain, which is unthinkable to a M'bororo, says Ibrahim.

- If I destroy nature, I destroy myself as well. I lose my dignity.

She nevertheless points out that she wants development, also in areas populated by indigenous people.

Drunk teacher?

- There are many positive developments in Africa. What is important is that they are sustainable. It is no good if the authorities build a school and send a drunk teacher to educate the children.

We need schools and development that respect the rights and identity of indigenous people. Which improve knowledge about how to better protect the environment, how to avoid conflicts between different groups of people, and how to take care of our resources.

Ibrahim says that all development projects in areas where indigenous peoples live must be based on the idea of protecting their rights.

It is only then that we can work together to achieve sustainable development.

Accelerated development

- My culture is well on its way towards destroying the planet on which we live, and you say that your culture provides the answer to turning the tide?

I would not say that my culture is better than yours, but I believe that it is better at taking care of the environment. It is a matter of ancient traditions, and your culture no longer being able to see the forest for the trees because you wanted to achieve development too quickly. You didn't see the consequences of your actions on the climate, and it is first now that you are realising that the Earth is being destroyed, and that future generations will not be able to live the way you have done in the past.

Ibrahim says that she believes that her people were lucky not to participate in the western world's development earlier.

- Now we see more clearly than you what the consequences of accelerated development are. Partly because we are so dependent on nature in order to live our lives. Religion is important in my society. Most religions say that "We are here as guests", and that "We must preserve the Earth the way God created it". My people have deep faith. I believe that this has been important.

Do you want more?

- So what is your message to 'my culture' in order to slow down climate change?"

- We are living on the same planet. This is the only one we have, the one we have to take care of. In order to manage that, many people will need to change their lifestyles, because man-made climate change is a fact.

Ibrahim talks about the large flow of people to Europe:

- We also see the refugees making their way to Europe on TV. But it is strange to us that you don't understand that it is happening. Why are all these people fleeing? asks Ibrahim, and answers:

- Because their lives are difficult where they live. Because of drought and flooding or conflict. So if you want to save your own lives, you need to also help make sure that people elsewhere have better lives. You're already so developed. You have everything. Do you want even more? asks Ibrahim, and leaves the answer hanging in the air, before concluding,

- It's really quite simple. You have to change the way you live. Consumption must be reduced, as well as the pace of change. For the sake of future generations. That's how you can save yourselves. And us as well.

Published 15.03.2016
Last updated 15.03.2016