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  • Charlotte Owen-Burge

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim: Women and Indigenous peoples can help win the war on climate change

The President of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad (AFPAT) on ensuring equity in the fight to slow climate change.


The world needs to understand that Indigenous peoples are only 5% of the world’s population but protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity. As the guardians of forests, mountains, glaciers and islands, we have found natural ways to protect all kinds of ecosystems.


There is no better group, with the traditional knowledge we have accumulated, that can help advise on how to adapt to changing ecosystems than Indigenous peoples. Our lives are tied to our environments; when climate change impacts accelerate, and we lose biodiversity, we can adapt, as we have always done, adapting one day to the next. Indigenous knowledge is intricately and sensitively linked to each ecosystem, so it is an exceptional resource for climate solutions.


Part of a common humanity united by the environment


To unlock these solutions, Indigenous peoples must first be recognised as the stewards of the environment that they are and participate at the decision-making level. This means they must sit at the table from the beginning of the discussion and be there when the policies are designed and implemented. This is not about just consulting with Indigenous peoples or using them for information. It is about helping design a system – not as countries, powers or economies – but as human beings that are a part of a common humanity united by the environment for which we have a universal role in protecting.


And this is not just at the international level, where conventions, treaties and declarations are made. This must also be at the national level. For example, when countries ratified the Paris Agreement, they were happy to go to New York and sign it and say their parliaments would adopt it. But how many really have national legislation that genuinely puts their country on a pathway to limiting global warming to 1.5°C? They’re just not doing that.

Governments need to understand it’s not a matter of going to these international conferences and clapping with support. It’s about going back to their countries and changing legislation at the national level. And when that is done, Indigenous peoples and local communities must be there and considered in the legislation and land rights must be at the heart of it.


Let women take the lead and see the progress that can be made in averting catastrophic climate change

We also need to radically address gender parity if we are to tackle climate change. Even at international negotiations, most of the focus is on men, and most delegates are men. They might say gender is important, but that’s just ticking a box.


And it’s the same at the project level, nationally. There might be $1 million put aside to fund climate-related projects, but only $10,000 or $20,000 of that goes to a female-led organisation. Again, they think they’re ticking the box. But it’s not working.


Reality shows us that women are more than half of the working population. And that means women must be valued and given a more excellent voice. In my community, women are the ones who know where you can find traditional medicine; the plants that can reduce fever or stop diarrhoea, they can find the food that feeds families. They have knowledge that is useful for an entire community.


So, to protect these women from climate impacts and recognise their value, they also need to be included in discussions on climate change from the beginning. And it’s not about achieving a quota, making sure that if there are ten participants, at least three of five are women. It’s about genuinely wanting to consider what women have to say, giving women the right to express their voices and show themselves as experts who can take the decisions.


Let women take the lead and see the progress that can be made in averting catastrophic climate change. You see this in countries where there are female leaders, their climate change policies are better respected than where there is male leadership.


We already have a 1.5°C increase in some countries.

So how else do we tackle climate change? Well, of course, the obvious answer is to cut greenhouse gases. We need to reduce emissions. But we see contrary policymaking. You have leaders in renewable energy, like Germany, who are still hugely supportive of coal.


It’s contradictory and the same elsewhere in Europe and the US, where they continue to back oil and the extraction of other natural resources. They say, “we want to shift to clean energy,” but by subsidising fossil fuels and continuing to use these damaging energy sources, they are giving a bad example to emerging countries like India, China and South Africa. They look at these countries and say, “you are the richest, but you don’t want to shift to this transition. And yet you’re asking us to do it. No. Who are you to ask us to do it!”


The lead needs to be taken by developed countries, which will show the way by radical change, shifting away from the damaging fossil fuels to renewables and the skills and green economy that come with that.


Most developing countries are not contributing to climate change, yet they are – and will be – most impacted. Leaders of developed countries say that limiting global temperatures to 1.5 °C is important, but we already have a 1.5°C increase in some countries. In my country, Chad, from 1991 to now, we have had a rise of 1.5°C already. If nothing changes over the next ten years, it will rise to over 3°C or even 4°C. Now, during the dry season, we have 50°C in the day. So, when we have a temperature rise of 3°C or 4°C, we simply won’t survive there.


But there is hope. Countries have shown with Covid; they can inject billions into the economy to save themselves from losing power. And if they can do that with Covid, then they can do that with climate change.


With climate change, we cannot hide by wearing a mask, we cannot hide by closing our frontiers, and we cannot hide by locking everyone away. We can boost the economy by making it green. Even if some countries lose power in the short term, they will ultimately build a better world. And what greater power is that?


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity - 8th July 2020


Ibrahim is the recipient of numerous honours, including winning the Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award, appointment as a UN Sustainable Development Goals Advocate; serving as a Member of the UN 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, listed by Time Magazine as one of 15 women championing action on climate change. In July 2020, she joined Conservation International’s Board of Directors.

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