Fatima Jibrell Connects the Dots between Environmental Degradation and Violence in the Horn of Africa

October 15, 2013

In the early 1990s, as the civil war and famine broke out in Somalia, Fatima Jibrell was compelled to do something about what was happening to her land and her people. She founded the Horn of Africa Relief and Development Organization (now known as Adeso), and over the next decade, she focused on helping Somalia’s pastoralists, who traditionally relied on grazing their livestock in the country’s sparsely populated rangelands and deserts. These lands were falling victim to rampant deforestation driven by unrestricted charcoal trade. Her work eventually led to a ban on charcoal smuggling and she was awarded the Goldman Prize in 2002.

In recent years, Adeso has grown by leaps and bounds, now operating programs in Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan with offices in the United States and United Kingdom. Jibrell officially retired from Adeso in 2006, but she still serves as a senior advisor and lifetime board member.

Much of Adeso’s work is rooted in the notion that people’s livelihoods are inextricably linked to natural resources and a healthy environment, which is why its programs have a strong focus on stopping deforestation and the illegal charcoal trade, protecting and regenerating pastoralists’ rangeland and promoting food security.

The survival of pastoralist communities and their cultures depends on livestock. Environmental degradation and desertification in East Africa have made it increasingly difficult for pastoralists to survive, as grasslands and forests disappear at an alarming rate.

When natural resources are threatened or lost, pastoralists have very few alternatives to support themselves and their families. In desperate circumstances, people often turn to crime, militancy, piracy, and terrorism, a cycle that further contributes to the region’s violence and instability.

Last month’s attack on a Kenyan shopping mall by a Somali-based militant group and an increase in piracy in the region’s waterways underscore the importance of Jibrell’s critical work.

Jibrell has been vocal about connecting the dots between environmental protection and peace and stability in the region. During a recent visit to Washington DC, Jibrell spoke with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud at the Woodrow Wilson Center about the key role environmental protection needs to play in restoring Somalia’s safety and stability.

In addition to land management and restoration, Jibrell is growing awareness on the need to protect Somalia’s coastal resources, which have been ravaged by illegal fishing fleets and pollution. Her next goal is to work with coastal communities to promote sustainable fisheries and marine stewardship, to increase food security and reduce the need to turn to crime for survival.