‘Grandmothers are our weather app’: New maps and local knowledge fuel Chad’s climate response | Global Development

IIt’s a simple idea: where land and river boundaries are disputed, make a map. Putting it into practice, using the unwritten knowledge and oral histories of farmers, nomads and grandmothers who read bird migration patterns to predict rain, is a bit more difficult.

But Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim says she is a fighter. “If you were born as an Indigenous person, you were born as an activist, because you were born with the issues that surround your community,” she says.

His native Chad is on the frontline of the climate crisis, with temperature increases expected to be 1.5 times higher than the global average. The UN describes Chad as “one of the countries in the world whose environment is the most degraded”. In 2020, record rainfall caused a huge loss of food stocks and displaced hundreds of thousands of people while floods last year left more than 160,000 homeless. Climate change has already destroyed the lives of pastoralists, who cannot milk their dehydrated cattle.

Desertification has reduced agricultural land and pasture and nomads such as the Mbororo – Ibrahim’s people – and farmers are being driven into conflict while government and military land grabs have further reduced access at the water.

To help ease tensions, Ibrahim works with communities to produce maps that allow them to agree on the sharing of natural resources. Using high-resolution satellite imagery, Ibrahim and representatives from EOS Data Analytics held workshops with leaders from 23 villages in Mayo-Kebbi East to map 1,728 km2. People added things like rivers, settlements, and roads, as well as sacred forests, medicine trees, waterholes, and cattle corridors. Laminated copies of the cards were distributed to each community. She is conducting a similar exercise on the shores of Lake Chad.

The initiative mapped 1,728 km² in the Mayo-Kebbi Est region. Photography: Courtesy of Afpat

Ibrahim said it was essential to involve women in the process, not only to ensure their representation, but because of the knowledge they possess, such as how to find water in the dry season.

“In the west, people check their weather app to see if it’s going to rain,” says Ibrahim. “Our best application is our grandmothers, because they can simply observe the position of the clouds, the migration of birds, the direction of the wind or the small insects, and say: ‘Oh, it will rain in two hours!’ “

Territorial mapping workshop in the Mayo-Kebbi Est region in Chad
Community members added features to the maps, including sacred groves, medicinal trees, water holes and livestock corridors. Photography: Courtesy of Afpat

Ibrahim, who has chaired indigenous peoples’ initiatives at four United Nations climate conferences and was listed by Time as one of 15 women leading climate action in 2019, wants to use the map to show how Indigenous-led crisis response can be combined with technology – and work.

As a Mbororo woman, she understands what marginalization means. Her mother, who never went to school, fought to educate her and her sister in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena, where classmates made fun of Ibrahim because he “smelled of milk”.

“I grew up between two cultures, says Ibrahim. Her mother, who learned to read and write two years ago, now masters WhatsApp. “She said, ‘You travel a lot and I need to hear your voice,’ so you see, being an activist in my community is about being innovative across generations.”

At school, Ibrahim started thinking about the changes she wanted to see around her.

“I realized that I couldn’t talk about women’s rights without talking about community rights. I can’t talk about community rights without talking about the environment we live in and depend on,” she says. At 15, she founded the Association of Women and Indigenous Peoples of Chad (Afpat), focusing on women’s rights and environmental protection.

Territorial mapping workshop in the Mayo-Kebbi Est region in Chad
Ibrahim said it was vital to involve women, who bring unique knowledge such as how to find water in the dry season. Photography: Courtesy of Afpat

In 2019, Chad ranked last on the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative Index, which measures vulnerability and resilience to climate change in 182 countries.

“Sometimes I cry. Because I say, let’s finish. I won’t have peoples, just a story that my peoples were once nomadic with cattle,” Ibrahim says.

“But when I see the communities that come together every day to protect nature, it gives me more hope and energy.” Those who participated in the mapping use it to agree on sustainable use of the environment. One community even constructed a building to hold a physical copy.

But international responses are exhausting Ibrahim. “We’re in a climate crisis, but companies keep digging for more fossil fuels and governments aren’t making decisions to switch to clean energy,” she says. “Maybe they call them developed countries, but I call them overdeveloped countries. They get more than they need to survive satisfactorily, but they don’t act fast enough to ensure that we can survive as well.

People standing next to a giant map of sustainable resources in the Mayo-Kebbi Est region of Chad
Ibrahim wants to use the map to show the world how Indigenous-led crisis response can be combined with technology – and work. Photography: Courtesy of Afpat

In Chad, people from the north are migrating to the greener south. “It creates conflicts between those who come and those who stay and over natural resources.” Others leave and “find themselves in Europe without doing anything”, says Ibrahim. “We are hesitant to use the name climate refugee, but we need to put it on the table and talk about it.”

More progress is needed to bring indigenous peoples into discussions on climate change, she says. “If they recognize science, they must recognize our knowledge. If they recognize our knowledge, we must be at the tables to make decisions about the future of our world.

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Donald E. Patel