2021 Rolex Awards Laureate

Use indigenous peoples’ knowledge to map resources and prevent conflict around climate in Chad

The reality of climate change is known to few better than the people of Chad. The country’s largest lake, which bears the nation’s name and supports more than 30 million people, has almost vanished in barely two generations. For climate change and indigenous rights advocate Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, the tragedy also offers an opportunity to bring her people together to solve their crisis, using the unlikely medium of mapping.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is a woman of the nomadic Mbororo people, whose flocks and herds have grazed the region around Lake Chad for millennia. Now, that ancient heritage is at risk as planetary heating causes water sources to vanish, pastures to wither and conflicts between farmers and graziers over dwindling resources to multiply. “We are at the front line of climate change,” she says. “When the seasons change, it changes our daily life.”

As a committed peacemaker, she sought ways to bring the divided community together to meet the common danger and serve their common needs – and found the answer in participatory mapping. Maps may be flimsy – but they have often been the cause of wars: Ibrahim’s inspiration is to turn them into tools of peace, by drawing antagonized peoples around them to plan a safer, more prosperous future together.

We all depend on nature. We interact with our environment. That’s why, for me, I can’t protect human rights without also protecting the environment.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim

When Ibrahim’s mother was young, Lake Chad extended over 25,000 km² of semi-arid country in northern Chad. Today, under the lash of an increasingly hostile climate, it has dwindled to 1,200 km², less than five per cent of its former area. The farmers, fishers and graziers who rely on it are desperate.

To test her idea, Ibrahim ran a small project in Baïbokoum, in southwest Chad, and proved mapping to be a valuable, scalable and credible way to decrease tensions between communities and help local authorities manage resources more wisely. She brought together 500 indigenous herders to map natural resources in their region: the men documented ridges and plateaux, rivers and sacred places, while the women mapped the springs. Their advice was adopted by the national government.

As a woman leader in a largely patriarchal society, Ibrahim had to fight hard to have her ideas accepted. Core to her success was her view that indigenous peoples are the ones who best know, understand and care for their environment – and should be those first consulted on its needs. Traditional knowledge, combined with modern scientific 2D and 3D mapping methods can build a safer future for all, she believes. “The younger generations, women and men, all come together and build the map, map the knowledge, map the resources and see better how they can share them.

“People need to understand that we cannot talk about human rights without talking about environmental rights. We all depend on nature. We interact with our environment. That’s why, for me, I can’t protect human rights without also protecting the environment.”

Ibrahim’s commitment to indigenous society, climate resilience and collaborative solutions has earned her international acclaim.

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