Refugees International’s annual Awards Dinner has traditionally celebrated individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary leadership and commitment to humanitarian action. This year, due to COVID-19, we’ve transformed the event into a virtual presentation to honor leaders who have significantly contributed to combatting climate change and displacement.
We are proud to present Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim with our 2020 Richard C. Holbrooke award. Each year, Refugees International presents this award to a member of international civil society who has played a leading role in advancing the rights and interests of vulnerable communities. Watch her remarks and read the Q&A below with Refugees International President Eric Schwartz.
Eric Schwartz: Hindou, thank you so much for graciously accepting Refugees International’s 2020 Richard C. Holbrooke Award. We are thrilled about the opportunity to celebrate your important work as president of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad (AFPAT) and your enduring advocacy on behalf of indigenous communities impacted by climate change in Chad and around the world.
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim: From video: I would like to thank Refugee International for all the work that you are doing in my country, in my region, and for my people, even virtually, the world is becoming a village. I’m so pleased and honored to be a part of this award for Richard Holbrooke. It’s such a great pleasure for me, for my people, and all the indigenous people communities around the world.
Eric Schwartz: Lake Chad, a vital source of water for many countries including your own, has been drying up in recent years. How has that affected people in your community? And can you tell us about what ways you’ve sought to help your community confront the challenges this has presented?
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim: I come from a pastoralist community whose lives depend on the ecosystem. The pastoralists move from one place to another to find water around Lake Chad. The lake used to be the biggest source of fresh water in our region. More than five countries depend on these resources, including almost 40 million communities of farmers, fishermen, and cattle herders. But in my own lifetime, about 30 years, I’ve seen 90 percent of these waters evaporate. This change is creating conflict among communities who are competing for access to these resources. With Lake Chad drying up and my communities depending on it, I have to use alternative solutions to help them adapt and make them more resilient in life. So, one of the solutions we are using is the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples. This knowledge helps us in our efforts to restore the ecosystem and also to better manage relations between the communities that are fighting to get access to these resources. Because we migrate and move from one place to another, we give a break to the ecosystem, allowing it to restore in a natural way. When we come back to a place, we find our pastures, and we can share them with the other communities who produce their crops in other places.
Eric Schwartz: Can you tell us a bit about your own background and experiences? What led you to the critical work you are doing today?
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim: I have a strong mother who sent me to school, and I live between the town and the pastoralist communities, where my grandma helped me understand a lot of things about our life, about our ecosystem, and about protecting our environment that helps protect our people. Having a Western education and my community’s education helped me build a bridge between the two worlds—to combine the solutions from a knowledge of science and the solutions of the traditional knowledge. My community lacks so many things: there are no schools, there is no fresh water to drink, and there are no hospitals. So those basic rights are always violated. That’s what led me to want to help—there is a need for humanitarian action to help meet the basic needs of the people.
Eric Schwartz: Your work centers on lifting the voices of indigenous people. How does indigenous knowledge help you in your work?
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim: From our long lives in this ecosystem, we have developed a lot of traditional knowledge that helped us to cope and to survive. My community doesn’t rely on technology. Some in our community do have cell phones, but most of them do not even know what electricity is. Our energy is our traditional knowledge that comes from centuries and centuries of observation of the weather. We can just observe the migrations of birds and the direction of the wind, we can observe our own cattle and our own crops. And we can tell you if the next season we should move from one place to another one or if it is going to be a worse season that could lead to more conflict between the communities.
Eric Schwartz: How can we harness the knowledge and experiences within indigenous communities to promote sustainable solutions?
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim: Indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge is very relevant to climate solutions and to ecosystem and biodiversity restoration. My people don’t have access to the internet, the radio, or television, but we can use our traditional knowledge through the observation of nature where the size of the fruit, the flowers, or the bird migrations, or our own cattle can tell us the information we need to find a safe place, to find food, to migrate from one place to another one. So that knowledge is very relevant for our life, but it’s also very relevant to our planet, because it can help us fix man-made problems like climate change. It can also help us fix social problems, because when climate change impacts a region, it is impacting people who have to migrate—who will become refugees and become displaced. So, our knowledge can help us better manage our resources and help us to adapt so that we can live in harmony with each other.
Eric Schwartz: The COVID-19 pandemic is now a dominant focus of governments around the world as so many millions are imperiled. How have people been managing this health crisis in your area? From the pandemic and the response, do you see any lessons that can be learned and applied to how we must deal with the climate crisis?
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim: COVID-19 or the coronavirus is becoming the focus of all the world’s governments, and it is also creating injustice and divisions among nations and among communities. For example, my indigenous community is very far away from a big city, so we cannot access the same information that is changing every day, or I should say every hour, that is coming from different channels. We don’t have the information that we need to know. For the people who don’t have access to clean water, how can we ask them to use soap even five times a day? It is not possible at all. Now they are closing the markets in my area, which is hurting people who depend on the daily sales of their products. They cannot eat the next day. The impact also is much higher in the indigenous communities like mine and many others where there are no hospitals.
We are seeing the same things even in developed countries who are struggling, so this must be a lesson learned for the entire planet and for future generations. How can we build up justice among people? How we can protect the most vulnerable? The COVID-19 crisis must also be a lesson learned in how we invest in our environment, how we protect our natural resources, and how we conserve our biodiversity. That can help us deal with other crises that will come. It is just the beginning. If we do not protect our natural resources, we will have more severe pandemics. But we don’t want that. So let’s invest in our people and in the natural world.
Eric Schwartz: You were 15 years old when you founded AFPAT in 1999. What advice do you have for younger people who are now leading calls for climate reform? What advice do you have for young people who want to make a change in their communities?
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim: I founded AFPAT, my community-based organization, when I was very young. I think our age cannot limit our ambition to dream the best for ourselves and for our people and our planet. It is not a barrier for what you want to do. When I started, I was not able to speak a word of English. I was not able to communicate with other people who have a different background from me. But my ambition for my people didn’t limit me. So that’s also why the younger generation is standing up for their futures, to fix the world in this climate crisis. They can do it. I say you can do it. Each milestone from an individual can build a mountain. And that is how we can be the change. We have to do it in a radical way and give the voice to the youth, but also give the action and the power to the youth. It is not only talking, but it is building pieces together. We can make this change. I am very optimistic about the younger generation. We can do this together.
Eric Schwartz: Hindou, thank you so much for your incredible work.
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim: Thank you, Eric.