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FATIMA JIBRELL: ANGEL OF SOMALIA



Curtis Abraham



Fatima Jibrell is a Somali-American environmental activist. She was the co-founder and executive director of the Horn of Africa Relief and Development Organization, co-founder of Sun Fire Cooking, and was instrumental in the creation of the Women's Coalition for Peace. She is the recipient of a 2002 Goldman Environmental Prize for the Africa region- perhaps the most coveted grassroots environmental award.




In 1993, Fatima Jibrell decided to return to her native Somalia from the US where she is a naturalized citizen. It was an easy decision in many ways. Since childhood, her dream was to raise a family. She also had the good fortune of marrying someone who equally loved Somalia.  However, many closest to her did not share the celebrated environmentalist’s dream to help Somalis break the brutal cycles of armed conflict, environmental degradation,

and abject poverty.


“[This decision] did not go down well with extended family members on both my side and my husband’s side [many of whom were longtime immigrants] to North America and Europe,” says Jibrell. “Some of them feared Somalia so much that they told us [that it would be better] to give away our children rather than taking them to Somalia.”


Her relatives were rightly concerned. After all, this was the early 1990’s and the small Horn of Africa nation pushed up against the Red Sea coast was embroiled in a bitter civil war between its traditional clans. Human tragedies aside, the war was creating an environmental disaster.


When Jibrell finally move back in 1993, she travelled overland through what was then Northern Somalia (today Somaliland and Puntland) observing the lives of destitute women and children in what appeared a vast desert wasteland. She was shocked by the widespread hunger and apparent hopelessness of it all.


“It looked like the people and their environment was collapsing at the same time,” she recalled.


At the time, many Somali men were addicted to kat, also known as mirra, a narcotic stimulant that grows in the East African highlands. However, like all addictions it required money, which conveniently came from deforesting Acacia trees, other tree species and shrubs to make charcoal (acacias are prevalent in the northeastern part of Somalia. Individual trees are said to grow up to 500 years old and, perhaps for this longevity. Bedouins believe the acacia to be sacred).But it’s not only kat that was causing environmental stress.


In recent times, Somalia’s al Shabaab insurgents have reaped huge rewards from the charcoal trade. According to UN estimates, the charcoal trade from Somalia amounts to a whopping $250 million annually, a third of which reportedly goes to the militants.


In another part of the country, however, deforestation for the charcoal trade was engineered by opportunistic businessmen.


“In northern Somalia, it was never al Shabab cutting forests for charcoal, but unemployed youth and [local] businessmen who employed them [as cheap laborers] and[after the burning process,] shipped charcoal out to foreign markets,” says Jibrell.


The charcoal circulates within the Gulf countries’ free trade zones and might then be distributed to markets in the Arabian Peninsula and further afield. In these markets, [there is high demand] for Somali charcoal to fire meat grills and heat shisha pipes (wood from acacias is said to burn longer and has a sweeter aroma than other charcoal in the region). Consequently, the Somalia variety sells for almost twice the price of that from Sudan or Nigeria.


There is also local consumption. Somalis use charcoal, or wood, to cook their daily meals.  But the charcoal trade has had an adverse effect on traditional Somali lifestyle. Somalis are pastoralist who depend on a variety of livestock including camels, sheep and goats for their livelihood, but deforestation for charcoal production has caused massive and nearly irreversible degradation of grazing land in Somalia. Vegetation normally used for livestock fodder instead fuels the fires of the charcoal kilns).


The absence of trees and herbage has impacted the Somalia’s mobile livestock herding way of life to the extent that Jibrell fears that it could spark yet another type of armed conflict.

“Due to limited fodder, pastoral communities are fighting over grazing pastures. This could trigger new kind of civil war very soon,” warns Jibrell.


Through African Development Solutions (ADESO), a grassroots NGO (originally named the Horn of Africa Relief and Development Organization or ‘Horn Relief’), which Jibrell co-founded with her diplomat husband, Abdulrahman Mohamoud Ali, and family friends in the early Nineties, she mounted a successful campaign to rescue primeval forests of acacia trees in the northeastern part of Somalia.


To address this problem, Jibrell and ADESO (she served as the organization’s executive director until 2012) trained a group of adolescents to educate the public on the permanent environmental damage that producing charcoal can create. In 1999, Horn Relief coordinated a peace march in the northeastern Puntland region of Somalia to put an end to the s “charcoal wars”.


Consequently, through Jibrell's lobbying and education efforts, the Puntland government in 2000 prohibited the exportation of charcoal. The government has also since enforced the ban, which has reportedly led to an 80% drop in exports of the product. In 2008, the year Jibrell won the National Geographic Society/Buffett Foundation Award for Leadership in Conservation, Jibrell wrote and co-produced a short film entitled Charcoal Traffic, which employs a fictional storyline to educate the public about the charcoal crisis. The movie was directed by the filmmaker Nathan Collett.


Jibrell is very proud of ADESO, not only for its successful anti-deforestation campaigns but also for the variety of work that it does and the number of lives they have affected in a positive way (during the 2011-2012 famine ADESO reached over half a million Somalis via cash transfers,


"what we consider a more dignified and effective form of humanitarian aid, because it enables people to decide how their must immediate needs should be met”).


Her organization also provides Somali youth with job skills and business grants as well as providing farmers with seeds and other farming assistance. The restoration of rangelands and coastal environments are also high on ADESO agenda.

 

Growing up in the Sanaag region of what was then British Somaliland during the 1950s, her life was intimately connected with the natural environment, particularly the forest and the sea.


Around age seven or eight, her life was centered on a particular acacia tree where she played, sat and slept in its expansive shade. Unlike today, Sanaag was a place of grasslands and marshes that were inhabited by lions, leopards, ostriches but invested with mosquitoes.


“I remember I was five years old [when] my homestead [was] attacked by a lion one night and my mother took piece firewood and started hitting the lion to make it drop a fat goat it grabbed from the herd.”


The family dwelled in a guri, a small circular hut of about seven square meters, and herded livestock near the town of Laasqoray. Her mother came from a family of traders who ferried goods on dhows across the waters of the Red Sea. Her father was a merchant marine who settled in New York. After my father migrated to USA, her mother moved back to her brother’s home in Erigavo town.  


The young Jibrell was selected from her Quran School, which was funded by the British Council in Somalia. It was the only British run school for girls in Buaro town.


“I was one of the youngest, but I could read more Arabic than the rest of students.”

She was the only one from Sanaag region who was given a chance for school that year. Jibrell attended until age 16 whereupon she left Somalia to join her father in the United States.


In 1964, at the height of America’s civil rights movement, Jibrell “did not find people [who understood] Africa, let alone Somalia. Discrimination was apparent everywhere [and] Muslims were almost non-existent in my [life there].”


She yearned to return home to Somalia.


Years later, while resident in the US, Jibrell and her husband raised five daughters.

“My daughters are very supportive and have built ADESO with me,” she says proudly.


ADESO aside, she also developed an innovative method that helped reduce Somalia’s reliance on charcoal, Jibrell also co-founded Sun Fire Cooking.  Sun fire cookers of all varieties are currently available on the market but what makes Jibrell’s unique is the large butterfly design of its parabolic mirrors, which enables it to cook faster than other solar cookers.


“Our solar cooker saves Somali households an average of $20 per month in charcoal costs. The solar cooker pays for itself in less than one year and should give twenty years of free solar cooking.”


In December 2005, with a UN grant and in partnership with the community organization Horn Relief, her organization distributed 950 solar cookers to five villages on the Somali coast, making Bander Beyla, Somalia, the country's first solar cooking village.


Jibrell and her colleagues are keen to establish more solar cooking villages throughout the Horn of African and possibly beyond. They also see it as a way of preventing sexual and other violence against women in refugee camps as women will no long need to brave the wilderness in search of firewood.Deforestation of Somalia’s acacias has contributed to soil erosion (trees anchor the soil with their roots but without them fertile soil is quickly washed away by torrential rains).Through her work with ADESO, Jibrell introduced the “rock dam” approach to, among other things, soil erosion.


A rock dam is composed of rocks piled together to stop soil erosion and formation of gullies. By slowing down the flow of water during the brief rainy season, the rock dams gather soil and create conditions that allow plants and even small trees to germinate.

Jibrell has encouraged community groups throughout Somalia to build rock dams to carefully nurture the country’s harsh, arid environment in order to bring forth shrubs and other plants (much of her efforts have been concentrated on the Sool and Sanaag regions of Somalia, which suffer severe droughts due to climate change and desertification). 

                                                        

Somalia’s marine environment is also under threat. The country has the longest coastline of

continental Africa and is part of one of the most important large marine ecosystems

in the Indian Ocean. However, fish was not a popular food among Somalis, but as livestock such as cattle have become increasingly hard to rear, its popularity has grown.

 

However, even this new source of sustenance is under threat. The destruction of mangroves for charcoal production, for instance, has further destabilized the coastal environment and destroyed fish habitat. Furthermore, foreign fishing trawlers are over-fishing, exploiting the absence of a stable government to defend the territorial limits (the recent wave of piracy off Somalia in the Indian Ocean is said to have been partly in response to this crisis).

 

“[Our] marine environment is ruthlessly violated by international fishing fleets,” laments Jibrell. “Three Fishing Industries of Laasqoray town in my area are closed. Fishing boats are left on shores and coastal youth and charcoal workers make [up] the majority [of Somali migrants] dying [in the] sea trying to cross to Saudi Arabia and Europe.”

 

Another activity that is said to have depleted fish stocks is the presence of deadly waste material in Somalia’s coastal waters. There have been conflicting reports of illegal dumping of toxic and radioactive waste in waters off the coast of Somalia by countries and governments of the European Union and outside the EU.

 

In 1992, when Somalia spiraled into civil war, waste exporters had to negotiate with local clan warlords, who demanded guns and ammunition to allow the dumping to continue (waste material was either dumped in the sea or buried on land). Many of the ships, having brought weapons or waste, then became trawlers, and left Somali waters with holds full of tuna for onward sale.


The country’s coastal resources had also fallen prey to dynamite and cyanide fishing.

At least one of Jibrell’s daughters has followed in her footsteps by trying to help in the protection and restoration of her country’s marine environment. Degan Ali (ADESO’s current executive director and board member) is leading a program that restores fisheries in Somalia’s coast. The program trains communities in sustainable fishing practices, revitalizing critical habitat such as mangroves and coral reefs, and developing community-led responses to illegal fishing.


Jibrell is also the coordinator of the Resource Management Somali Network (RMSN), which includes environmental groups throughout the Horn of Africa; and she was instrumental in creating the Women’s Coalition for Peace to counter the emergence of a new political crisis in northeast Somalia in the Puntland region.


“I never thought of losing my lush landscapes to charcoal production. However, I am [76-years old] and I am [searching] for what I lost at 8-years of age,” says Jibrell,“I am driven by this desire and with the help of [the Somali] communities and Adeso [we] are making it come back one small step at a time [as we] rehabilitate one valley at a time.”







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