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Why women and Indigenous peoples can help win the war on climate change

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is a member of the Mbororo pastoralist people in Chad, where hundreds of thousands of people have already been displaced as a result of climate change.  

Ibrahim has spent 20 years fighting to convince the world to give Indigenous peoples a greater voice in discussions on climate change. In the run up to the Paris Agreement she was designated as co-chair of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, established in 2008 as the caucus for Indigenous peoples participating in the UN Climate Summit.

As the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, Ibrahim told The Skylark that Indigenous peoples should be put at the forefront of climate-related policymaking and welcomed to the decision-making table. As the keepers of centuries’ old nature-based knowledge, she says, it is them above any other group that hold many of the solutions to tackling the climate and ecological crisis.

The world needs to understand that Indigenous peoples are only 5% of the world’s population but protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity. As the guardians of forests, mountains, glaciers and islands we have found natural ways to protect all kinds of ecosystems.

There is no better group, with the traditional knowledge we have accumulated, that can help advise on how to adapt to changing ecosystems than Indigenous peoples. Our lives are tied to the environments we live in and when climate change impacts accelerate and we lose biodiversity, we can adapt, as we have always done; adapting one day to the next. Indigenous knowledge is intricately and sensitively linked to each ecosystem so it is a very special resource for climate solutions.

This is not about just consulting with Indigenous peoples

In order to unlock these solutions, Indigenous peoples must firstly be recognised as the stewards of the environment that they are and participate at decision-making level. This means they must sit at the table from the beginning of the discussion and be there when the policies are designed and when they are implemented. This is not about just consulting with Indigenous peoples or using them for information. It is about helping design a system – not as countries, powers or economies – but as human beings that are a part a common humanity united by the environment for which we have a universal role in protecting.

And this is not just at the international level where the conventions, treaties and declarations are made. This must also be at national level. For example, when countries ratified the Paris Agreement, they were happy to go to New York and sign it and say their parliaments will adopt it. But how many really have a national legislation that genuinely puts their country on a pathway to limiting global warming to 1.5°C? They’re just not doing that.

Governments need to understand it’s not a matter of going to these international conferences and clapping with support. It’s about going back to their countries and changing legislation at national level. And when that is done, Indigenous peoples and local communities must be there and considered in the legislation and that land rights must be at the heart of it.

Give women the lead and see the progress that can be made

We need to radically address gender parity if we are to tackle climate change. Even at international negotiations, most of the focus is on men, and most of the delegates are men. They might say yes gender is important, but that’s just ticking a box.

And it’s the same at project level, nationally. There might be $1 million put aside to fund climate-related projects but only $10,000 or $20,000 of that goes to a female-led organisation. Again, they think they’re ticking the box. But it’s not working.

With climate change we cannot hide by wearing a mask. We cannot hide by closing our frontiers.

Reality shows us women are more than half of the working population. And that means women must be valued and given a greater voice. In my community, women are the ones who know where you can find traditional medicine; the plants that can reduce fever or stop diarrhoea; they can find the food that feeds families. They have knowledge that is useful for an entire community.

So, in order to protect these women from climate impacts, and recognise their value, they also need to be included in discussions on climate change from the beginning. And it’s not about achieving a quota, making sure that if there are ten participants at least three of five are women. It’s about genuinely wanting to consider what women have to say, giving women the right to express their voices; show themselves to be the experts who can take the decisions.

Let women take the lead and see the progress that can be made in averting catastrophic climate change. You see this in countries where there are female leaders, their climate change policies are better respected than where there is male leadership.

Setting the right example

So how else do we tackle climate change? Well of course, the obvious answer is to cut greenhouse gases. We need to reduce emissions. But we see contrary policymaking. You have leaders in renewable energy like Germany that are also still hugely supportive of coal.

It’s very contradictory and it’s the same elsewhere in Europe and in the US where they continue to back oil and the extraction of other natural resources. They say “we want to shift to clean energy” but by subsidising fossil fuels and continuing to use these damaging energy sources, they are giving a bad example to emerging countries like India, China and South Africa. They look at these countries and say “you are the richest but you don’t want to shift to this transition. And yet you’re asking us to do it. No. Who are you to ask us to do it!”

The lead needs to be taken by those already developed countries who will show the way by radical change, shifting away from the damaging fossil fuels to renewables and the skills and green economy that come with that. 

Most developing countries are not contributing to climate change, yet they are – and will be – most impacted. Leaders of developed countries say that limiting global temperatures to 1.5 °C is important but we already have a 1.5°C increase in some countries. In my country, Chad, from 1991 to now we have had a rise of 1.5°C already. For the next ten years, if nothing changes, it’s going to rise to over 3°C or even 4°C. Now, during the dry season, we have 50°C in the day. So, when we have a temperature rise of 3°C or 4°C, we simply won’t survive there.

But there is hope. Countries have shown with Covid they can inject billions into the economy to save them losing power. And if they are able to do that with Covid, then they are able to do that with climate change.

But with climate change we cannot hide by wearing a mask, we cannot hide by closing our frontiers, we cannot hide by locking everyone away. We can boost the economy by making it green. Even if some countries lose power in the short-term, they will ultimately be building a better world. And what greater power is that.

If you have been inspired by any of the issues in this story, then click here to explore how you can Take Action and be part of the solution today.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity – 8th July 2020

Ibrahim is the recipient of numerous honours, including winning the Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award, appointment as a UN Sustainable Development Goals Advocate; serving as a Member of the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues; Member of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC); Member of the Advisory Committee to the Secretary-General’s 2019 Climate Action Summit, and Conservation International Senior Indigenous Fellow. In 2019, listed by Time Magazine as one of 15 women championing action on climate change. In July 2020, she joined Conservation International’s Board of Directors.

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