Fatima Jibrell: Nursing Nature

Fatima Jibrill
Photo courtesy Goldman Prize

Somali environmentalist Fatima Jibrell is waging a tireless battle to protect her tiny, arid, and war-ravaged country.

Somalia, a desert country the size of Texas, has only 2 percent arable land. With the ever-present threat of devastating droughts, protecting the environment is a must. This is where Fatima Jama Jibrell, 54, the founder and executive director of Horn of Africa Relief and Development Organization of Somalia, steps in. For her efforts, she is now a winner of the San Francisco-based 2002 Goldman Environmental Prize, the largest award for grass-roots environmentalists.

For Jibrell, stability in Somalia is primarily undermined by ordinary Somalis, who—during a decade without stable government—have hastily stripped their country of its few resources in pursuit of fast profits. “Because African political leaders have delegated their economic planning to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank,” Jibrell explains, “they no longer have the power to protect their citizens or environment from being exploited by the First World.” Jibrell alerts Somalis to lucrative alternative markets, like solar energy. She is fighting against unrestricted charcoal production—Somalia’s main export to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States—and the massive desertification of acacia trees, which are being harvested for charcoal. Her efforts have brought results: She has pushed through a ban on the export of charcoal, and thus brought an end to the massive logging of these old-growth trees.

“We will go slowly [but] we will get there someday,” she promises, and reaches out across clans and regions to nomadic women and pastoralists in her awareness campaigns on how to make careful use of Somalia’s natural resources. “By promoting the connections between peace, women’s empowerment, and resource protection, we have been able to provide communities with needed skills and sustainable economic activities,” Jibrell declares.

It is also a battle that shows just how much Somalia has changed over the years. For Jibrell, the lions that prowled her childhood in a nomadic family have been replaced by a more ferocious threat: the global economy. “It is important to know that we are all human world citizens and belong to this fragile, limited space. If we go too far, we can’t repair it.”

But her vision reaches beyond the trees and the water and the land. She is the creator of the Women’s Coalition for Peace and believes that “women cannot remain detached [from politics]. We can be pillars of peace in Somalia.”

Jibrell will actively take part—a child of a country where women were confined to their huts, never seen or heard.