Indigenous Peoples Have a Vital Role to Play in the Fight against Climate Change
by Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim
For much of the world, climate change is still something of an abstract concept. It’s a slow-motion disaster looming in the future, or a freak storm or heat wave that grabs headlines and then fades away.
But for many indigenous peoples, climate change is already here – a part of daily life that threatens to upend traditional societies and destroy livelihoods. Climate change is dashing hopes for a better future, as people struggle just to find ways to adapt and survive.
In my own country of Chad, climate change is having a terrible impact. More than 30 million people depend on Lake Chad and the rivers that flow into it to earn a living or even to survive. Over the last few decades, the lake has shrunk by more than 90 percent. The rivers that sustain it can be crossed on foot even in the rainy season in some places. Now that the dry season has begun, the rivers have dried up. During last year’s dry season, Chad reported its highest temperature ever: 48 degrees Celsius and up to 50 in the desert in the northern part of the country.
The impact on the nomadic pastoralists living around Lake Chad cannot be overstated. Extreme heat and disease are killing the cattle my people depend on. The cows that do survive produce less milk because the quality of their pasture is so poor. In Chad, we are now facing the kind of devastating food crisis that our brothers and sisters are living with in Somalia and Sudan.
Conflicts are flaring more frequently between pastoralist and farmers. Poverty is a breeding ground for all kinds of extremism, and violence is growing as people are forced to fight for themselves and their families’ survival. And while they fight, nature disappears. For centuries, indigenous peoples have played a vital role in maintaining the fragile ecosystem of the Sahel, through their annual migrations. When cattle leave a piece of land, we know for sure that next year that land will be fertile, consolidating a natural barrier against the desert. But if people, my people, disappear… who will hold back the advancing desert?
Fortunately, there is some reason for hope. The Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals commit the world to addressing the growing climate disaster. Unfortunately, for too many countries, the goals are more words than action. And even if the goals are achieved, they may be inadequate. The Paris Agreement’s target is to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, but the latest report on global warming, released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, shows that letting the Earth’s temperature rise more than 1.5 degrees would be devastating. And in the Sahel region, warming has already exceeded 1.5 degrees.
Truly coming to grips with climate change requires not just ambitious targets, but ambitious action that takes advantage of every possible tool. Indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge is a vital, but neglected, weapon in the climate change fight.
In my community, we collect information from nature and use this data to inform our decisions. We observe trees, fruits, bird migrations, wind direction and the positions of the stars to predict the weather and to help us adapt to changes. The Mbororo can tell by the size and shape of a palm tree’s fruit and even the offspring of a type of lizard whether the coming season will be good or bad. They can tell on a cloudless day that rain is coming when they see a certain insect coming out. By combining this kind of knowledge with science and technology, by grounding innovation in nature, we have the greatest chance to meet climate challenge. We are already using participatory 3D modeling to map our land and better manage our natural resources, and an indigenous peoples’ platform has been created under the Paris Agreement.
In the coming months, I will be attending many international conventions to advocate for my indigenous sisters and brothers, including the Convention of Biological Diversity and the United Nations Climate Change Conference. I will inform decision-makers of the reality that our lives are constantly changing because of climate change, and reinforce the idea that we must be involved in the decision-making process. I am committed to giving my community and all indigenous peoples access to a new platform and audience to share our experiences and help the world benefit from our knowledge, innovation and ways of conservation. But I don’t want to preach in the desert. There is no time for that anymore. I will plea for action – immediate action – by those who can fight climate change. And we will act. And we will need all the support that people, institutions, states and NGOs can bring. In this world, where every day advanced technology brings new innovations, we will also need Indigenous knowledge to protect Mother Earth.
Without indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge, and without indigenous peoples’ involvement in decision-making, we can’t help implement climate solutions. And right now, the planet needs all the help it can get.
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is an Indigenous Woman from Mbororo pastoralist people of Chad. She is a United Nations SDG Advocate, Conservation International’s Senior Indigenous Fellow and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. She is also a former co-chair of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change