Lake Chad, a vast body of fresh water that supports more than 30 million people, has almost disappeared in just two generations. As the water has dried up and biodiversity has been lost, fishers have become desperate, pastures have deteriorated and conflicts between farmers and herders over water and fertile land have increased as they fight for the resources that remain.
“As a child of a nomadic community [the Mbororo], there is nothing that can describe the real impact of climate change,” she says. “All our resources are shrinking. It is impacting the life and livelihood of the people, of my people. Our entire life, our economy and our culture is based on our environment, and now it’s changing so fast: the desert is approaching, the wells are empty, our sacred trees are dying. We are at the front line of climate change.”
She says the community around the Sahel region used to live in harmony and people cooperated to share resources and preserve the environment. Now they fight each other to get access to a piece of fertile land or water, because everyone needs to feed their own family.
As a mediator, she wanted to bring the affected communities together and find a way to reduce these conflicts. And her solution was cartography, or ‘participatory mapping’.
By tapping into traditional knowledge and locating resources using 2D and 3D mapping, she believed these tensions could be alleviated, so she brought together 500 indigenous pastoralists in Baïbokoum, in southwestern Chad, to test the theory. The men listed ridges and plateaus, rivers and sacred places, while the women listed fresh water springs and medicinal plants. The government followed their advice.
“It’s working with the community, putting all the knowledge together, from the science and technology to the traditional knowledge around the area that we want to map.”
The map means everyone knows exactly where they can access water, where they can farm, and where they can collect food or ingredients for traditional medicine.
“The final product will allow the people to have a dialogue, make a plan of adaptation, mitigate conflict among themselves, then design the development that they want and present it to the local authorities,” she says. “That will help the policy-makers make the right decisions. They are so enthusiastic to manage the resources together. They say, ‘wow, we really feel like we are experts now because we are the knowledge.’”
The project has also engaged community members to take action to rejuvenate the environment: as a result of the mapping, women and youth decided to replant a forest “that had been here forever but had disappeared in the last decade”.
2023 is on track to be the hottest year in human history and indigenous ways of life all around the world are increasingly threatened by global heating and more extreme weather events. While Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim had to fight for her idea to be accepted in Chad, which is still a heavily patriarchal society, she knows the success of the project stems from the belief that Indigenous Peoples are best placed to know, understand and care for their environment, and should be the first to be consulted when it comes to protecting it.
In New Zealand, Indigenous Peoples’ rights are enshrined in our founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi and in almost every instrument of government. Yet disagreements for the equitable management of resources abound. There are conflicts with existing or assumed rights and different interpretations in different realms, as was the case with the Foreshore and Seabed controversy in 2004. How we engage with the natural world and utilise its diminishing resources remains one of the great discussions of our age, but the more holistic approach to the environment that is traditionally adhered to by Māori and other indigenous groups has come back into fashion in modern sustainability circles as concepts like the circular economy or planetary boundaries gain prominence.
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is also trying to spread Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge around the world. In addition to the work in her home country, she is also a United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Advocate, a Member of the United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues and a senior fellow at Conservation International. She was named a Laureate in the 2021 Rolex Awards for Enterprise and through that she has been exposed to a large network of committed scientists, activists and explorers who are doing all they can to protect the environment and enhance human rights, two things that are becoming increasingly linked.
“We all depend on nature. We are nature and Indigenous Peoples know it. In big cities, it’s easy to forget the importance of a tree, a forest or a fresh water source. But I believe that everyone knows what we owe to nature and can easily reconnect with it. That’s why listening to Indigenous Peoples and respecting our rights is so important because it’s one of our best chances, maybe our last chance, to protect our environment and Mother Earth.”