This post is part of an ongoing series of interviews with the 2017 class of National Geographic Emerging Explorers.
Environmental activist and geographer Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is one of 14 National Geographic Emerging Explorers for 2017. This group is being honored for the way its members explore new frontiers and find innovative ways to remedy some of the greatest challenges facing our planet. The 2017 class of Emerging Explorers will be honored at the National Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington, D.C. in June.
In rural parts of Chad, a nuisance plant has begun to spring up—one that strangles crops and can’t be eaten by the cows. People call it “the bad herb,” says Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim. It’s one of many changes her people, the nomadic Mbororo, are noticing: declines in milk from the cows, new illnesses, shifting seasons.
Ibrahim is working to collect indigenous knowledge about natural resources in Chad as part of a 3-D mapping project, while also representing her community in climate discussions at the United Nations. She describes a childhood that straddled two worlds: school in the capital city of N’Djamena and tending cows among family in the Mbororo. Now she bridges the gap between the indigenous people who intimately know their land and the governments making decisions many miles away.
How did you get interested in this work?
It links to my life, because I come from a nomadic community of cattle herders. I got a chance to go to school because my mom and my dad settled in town in N’Djamena, Chad’s capital. When my mom sent us to school, she got rejected from my father’s family and from her own family. She decided, “My kids can go to school, but they can never forget their culture.” So during all the holidays she took us back to the Mbororo community. I know how to milk. I sold milk and took care of the cattle and did everything that other kids did in nomadic life, too.
I got the chance to go to school, but other girls do not have any other choice but to get married. So my first project was to protect girls and create a business activity for them.
The second was asking how I can I protect the right of all my communities to the land, and advance the environmental protections that we all need as basic human rights? I cannot talk about human rights without talking about environmental rights. That’s normal for us, it goes together.
What kinds of indigenous knowledge are you recording with your work?
All the indigenous peoples’ knowledge are based on land and natural resources: water, wind, clouds, trees, air, birds, and animals. In my community we have six seasons. We have a dry season, a rain season and a cold season. But we have a transitional season between those three. We also have certain kinds of trees and we record when they give fruit and in which month. Is the tree giving a lot of fruit or just a little bit? Certain kinds of trees flower—is it a lot of flowers, or less? All those can determine the season and the changing of the weather, and that helps us to better adapt and better move from one place to another one. The mapping also helps us to see which kinds of species we are losing and how we can protect them.
Then it also helps us to decide on our own development. When water development projects come up for example, communities can say “no, sorry, but we don’t want to have a water source in this place because we don’t have a water problem there.” The community can say, we want to have our development but it will be this way, and it will be here.
Through a concrete example like the 3-D mapping, we can show it’s possible to use indigenous people’s knowledge, and it will cost less money and save more time to get to a result that will benefit everybody.
What are the nomadic communities’ attitudes towards the changing climate?
They understand a lot about climate change. The elders of the community tell us normally every 40 or 50 years there will be one big weather event and that is normal. Now they say they do not understand, because every year that’s changing. The seasons are changing a lot. There’s also the extreme rain with a lot of flooding and a lot of dryness between the rain seasons. We did not used to have this. Myself personally, I knew from when we sold milk that there were points where we could cross water on foot and other places you have to swim because the water was too deep. And now these have disappeared forever. It’s very shocking to see that.
What is it like to be at the highest-level international negotiations but then see the realities that your people face locally? Is there a disconnect?
Yes. This is the reason that I am involved at the international level and want to build this bridge. Because what is happening on the ground is really different than what’s discussed and negotiated at the international level. And there are not, to me, the right people doing these negotiations. They are people sitting in offices who forget about the real needs of the people. So that makes the negotiation very difficult, and not only difficult, but bizarre. Like, how can people just discuss grammar or punctuation, forgetting that there is an emergency and it’s affecting people’s lives?
Being there is one way to show them you are not acting for yourself, but you are acting for the people who do not get voices, who do not know what “adaptation” or “mitigation” means. This is really something hard for me, knowing those two realities. I know how my people are living, how they are affected, and how fast they want a solution.
What was the reception like among people back in the Mbororo group when you first started trying to talk to them about solutions?
With the 3-D mapping, we had already built the relationship, so that was much easier. But before that, being a woman and getting to the community at this level of decision-making, that was a bit challenging. It was very hard to convince people and to make them understand that it’s for them. All the chiefs are men, and as a woman you cannot go and talk to the man, because it’s the man who makes the decision.
I was always friends with my grandparents, so I could go and talk to them. After both of them passed away I went to the communities and said, “We know that as men you are looking for the solutions. Here are my propositions, what do you think?” I also asked them how I could talk to the women because we need to involve everyone—it’s not a men’s issue but a community issue. They said OK and facilitated me getting in contact with the women and having discussions with everybody. That was the big challenge.
And you weren’t even supposed to go to school … that’s got to be a big change, to be going into the community now to make decisions.
Absolutely, yeah. The huge change is now they’ve allowed a place for women to be part of the decision-making. That’s never happened before. Just a couple of weeks ago I organized a workshop with the minister of water and people representing the community. Always, if I have one man, I absolutely have one woman. And then they respect this one, and when they go back they transfer the information to the rest.
What do you want to work on in the future?
My focus is environmental rights because this is about the survival of my people, the survival of my identity. For me, we cannot talk about environmental protection without talking about people’s protection, because my people are living in this environment and we have to protect it and their rights. That’s always my focus. The rest can come as complementary—we need education, we need health, we need development. But the climate change fight is the first thing I’m focused on, and I will focus on it forever.
Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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