Marrakesh, Morocco — "It is just a woman. We cannot take what she says seriously," male officials have told Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim. But "I take the opportunity to put my ideas on the table"
When Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, a member of Chad's Mbororo pastoralists, first went to talk to the men of her community about climate change, she found herself sitting on the floor.
"The chiefs who take all the decisions are men. Talking to them was not easy," she remembers. "I had to sit down on the floor while the chiefs were sitting on chairs. (But) I greeted them and said I needed to talk to them about a very important thing, I needed to talk about our future."
Since then, Ibrahim, 32, has become a rarity in her culture: an educated woman who takes the stage at home and internationally to speak out on the need for action on climate change, and on rights for women and indigenous groups.
"Being an indigenous woman in Africa is a double marginalisation," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of the U.N. climate talks in Morocco, which finished last weekend.
Ibrahim was born the third of five brothers and sisters in her family and, unusually, was allowed to go to school by her father. Such opportunities are rare for girls in the culture of the Mbororo, a group of pastoralists living in the Sahel across Chad, Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria and the Central African Republic, she said.
Education has enabled her to become a spokeswoman in her community, working to engage women in local decisions, she said. She is now a co-chair of the International Indigenous People's Forum on Climate Change and head of an association for indigenous women in Chad.
NOT TAKEN SERIOUSLY
But being heard, as a woman, has not been easy, she said. Even today, when she tries to approach men in authority, she is often dismissed.
"It is just a woman. We cannot take what she says seriously," male officials have told her. But "I take the opportunity to put my ideas on the table," she said.
Men in her culture want to be the ones making decisions, "but they also need to hear what women have to say. We should be respected," she said at the climate talks, where she spoke on a variety of panels.
Over the last decade, she said, her pastoralist community has seen climate change emerge as a major concern.
"We can compare how the environment is changing just by seeing how many liters of milk we can get from the cows," she said, noting that the quantity has halved compared to a few years ago, a major concern in a culture that depends heavily on the animals for food.
Now "we don't have enough milk," Ibrahim said. "We are trying now to eat more cereals but most of us don't know or have never eaten (them)."
Drying waterholes are also a problem for the Mbororo, who travel long distances across national borders in the Sahel, Ibrahim said.
"When we move we stop next to a waterhole. We stay around three or four months before moving to another place. I remember I used to swim in the waterholes and the cows could drink the water," she said.
But "now we don't find these waterholes anymore. They have disappeared forever," she said.
Changing pasture plants - including one that makes cattle sick - and rising temperatures are also a major concern, she said.
Collecting enough food and water is taking an increasing amount of time for women, she added.
"They have to double the work they are doing. They have to go very far and have to walk for a very long time," she said, to gather water and increasingly rare medicinal plants.
In response to those growing challenges, Ibrahim has worked to help the Mbororo community have a stronger voice in government decision making in Chad and to better manage their own natural resources.
One of the most interesting projects she's been part of, she said, was creating a three-dimensional map of Mbororo resources that tapped into traditional knowledge.
The process of creating the map gave community members - particularly women - new self-confidence and should give the community greater control over its land, she said.
"The men from the communities helped in saying at which points the mountains, the rivers and the sacred places are located. And the women said where the places are they collect water and food. We gave voices to men and women equally in this project," she said.
Afterward, "we presented this project to policymakers telling them that we know how to manage our land and natural resources. So when the government comes with a project, they will have to consult us and we can inform them where we agree that projects could be implemented," she said.
The effort, in partnership with Chad's government, the national technical agriculture center and Chad's meteorological agency, should help protect indigenous rights, Ibrahim said.
"The human rights aspect should be at the heart of the actions that countries take to implement climate solutions," she said. When it comes to climate change, "I want action on the ground, not only words in papers," she said.
- Reporting by Fabiola Ortiz; editing by Laurie Goering