Nature and Biodiversity

Ecocide: How to protect nature and the people who are dying to save it

Fishermen return home at sunset in Chad's capital N'djamena April 21, 2006. A five-member team on an African union mission to Chad arrived in the country on Friday to probe President Idriss Deby's accusations that neighbour Sudan is backing rebels bent on ending his nearly 16-year rule. Picture taken April 21, 2006. REUTERS/David Mwangi - GF1DSLDYBNAA

Indigenous environmental activist Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is calling for ecocide to become a crime. Image: REUTERS/David Mwangi

Joe Myers
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Justice and Law

This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit

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  • Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim says ecocide becoming a crime would be a significant change in environmental protection.
  • Today, people are killed for protecting the planet, but nobody faces consequences for killing the planet, she says.
  • She believes indigenous people have wisdom and knowledge for the rest of the world to protect nature.

We need to turn the tables on our current system for protecting the environment, according to Hindou Ouarou Ibrahim, an indigenous environmental activist from Chad.

Today, we have a system where people - particularly indigenous people - are killed for protecting the planet. But, there are no repercussions for the people who are killing the planet.

"We have so many indigenous people who are being killed just because they wanted to protect other species, to protect nature, to protect their own land," she told the 'Preventing Ecocide' session at the World Economic Forum's Sustainable Development Impact Summit 2021.

Indeed, a recent report suggests that 227 land and environmental defenders were killed last year. And despite forming just 5% of the global population, one-in-three of those killed was from an indigenous community.

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What is ecocide?

Hindou, who is President of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad, said the concept of ecocide was interesting as a way to turn this situation on its head. Finally, we might be able to get those who destroy nature into court, she said.

The idea of ecocide would see the damage and destruction of the planet become an international crime - comparable to genocide.

"We define ecocide as an international crime, which means that the unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there's a substantial likelihood of severe and widespread or long-term damage to the environment will be criminal," explained Philippe Sands, a law professor at University College London, who co-chaired a working group that was tasked with coming up with a legal definition of ecocide.

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"The basic idea is the statute of the ICC, the International Criminal Court in The Hague, is amended to include this crime," he added.

It won't stop the destruction of nature, he said, but it might change attitudes. "I can tell you that nothing concentrates the mind more of a chief executive or chief operating officer than the possibility they may be criminally liable for something they have done."

"We have an anthropocentric legal order," he said. "We need to move towards an eco-centric legal order."

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Lessons from indigenous people

Hindou believes the world needs to learn from how indigenous people treat nature.

Indigenous people are just 5% of the global population, she explains, but protect 80% of the Earth's biodiversity. Who better to help other people understand how to do it, she asked. "We need to turn to these indigenous peoples' wisdom, to be an inspiration for others," she said.

Where the world's indigenous people live
Where the world's indigenous people live. Image: Statista

It's fundamental to our way of living, she explained. And we pass this way of living onto future generations. She gave an example from her community, where it's expected that she'll know about seven previous generations of her family - their names and what they did in their lives.

That then makes her think of future generations, too. When a child grows up in her community, they cannot act 'without thinking about seven upcoming generations', she said.

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