Source: The Green Belt Movement
Wangari Muta Maathai (1st April 1940 – 25 September 2011) was a Kenyan environmental and political activist environmental and political activist. She was educated in the United States at Mount St. Scholastica and the University of Pittsburgh, as well as the University of Nairobi in Kenya.
In the 1970s, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women's rights. In 1984, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, and in 2004, she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” Maathai was an elected member of Parliament and served as Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources in thegovernment of President Mwai Kibaki between January 2003 and November 2005. “In the world there is a new collective force of people mobilising around the issue of peace but linking it to the need to protect the environment. But we must assert our collective vision and responsibility to shape that peace not only for our country but also for the whole of Africa.”
“This year, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has evidently broadened its definition of peace still further,” the chair of the committee, Ole Danbolt Mjøs, said during the award ceremony in December. “Environmental protection has become yet another path to peace.”
“As the first African woman to receive this prize, I accept it on behalf of the people of Kenya and Africa, and indeed the world,” Maathai said in her acceptance speech. “I am especially mindful of women and the girl child. I hope it will encourage them to raise their voices and take more space for leadership.” She exhorted African leaders to “build fair and just societies,” and asked for the release of fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in Burma. Maathai also criticized “the extreme global inequities and prevailing consumption patterns” and called on corporations and global institutions to “appreciate that ensuring economic justice, equity, and ecological integrity are of greater value than profits at any cost.”
Maathai launched the Green Belt Movement in the 1970s and mobilized Kenyan women to plant trees throughout the country. In the past three decades, that movement has helped plant thirty million trees.
For her work, she faced persecution. Her activism brought her into increasing confrontation with the Kenyan authorities, especially when she began to demand good governance and democratic reform. She was beaten a number of times, including once when the Kenyan police bludgeoned her unconscious. She received death threats, and was forced into hiding in the early 1990s. Seven of her colleagues were killed, and her organization was almost banned. She was repeatedly jailed. “It is dehumanizing,” she told The Washington Post of her experiences in prison. “It is filthy. It is crowded. You are put in areas where people will mock you—guards and even prisoners. You are put there to humiliate you.”
Her fortunes switched in December 2002, when the reigning regime of Daniel arap Moi was defeated in elections. She won a seat to parliament—with an incredible 98 percent of the vote—and was appointed the assistant minister for the environment, natural resources, and wildlife.
While growing up, Maathai got a lucky break. Her brother persuaded their parents to send her to school, something that was far from the norm for girls in Kenya in the 1940s. She seized the opportunity and was such an exceptional student that the U.S. government gave her a scholarship to study in the United States. She received her bachelor’s from Mount St. Scholastica College (currently Benedictine College) in Atchison, Kansas. She went on to get a master’s in biology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1966 and then did doctoral work in Germany. But instead of staying behind in the West, she decided to go back home. She completed her doctorate in veterinary anatomy from the University of Nairobi in 1971, becoming the first East African woman to get a Ph.D., and she taught microanatomy at the university.
Besides the Nobel, she has been awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, the Right Livelihood Award, often referred to as the Alternative Nobel Prize, and the U.N.’s Africa Prize for Leadership. She currently serves on the board of several international organizations, including the U.N. Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament and the Jane Goodall Institute.
Maathai is full of energy and good cheer and is amazingly nice for someone of her stature. I spoke with her on a March morning in her hotel room at the Alex Hotel in New York City. She sipped tea while she good-naturedly answered my questions. Wearing a bright, multicolored African dress and headscarf, she seemed to still be basking in the afterglow of the Nobel.
The following day, she gave a talk at the Cooper Union. She spoke on poverty in Africa and the need for an aid program for the continent modeled on the Marshall Plan. She ended with the story of a hummingbird that tries to put out a forest fire. When mocked by other animals, the hummingbird replies, “I’m doing what I can.”
Question: What was your reaction when you got the Nobel?
Wangari Maathai: Well, this was a very big surprise. I was not seeking the Nobel because I knew that the committee doesn’t look at the environment, it looks at peace, and I wasn’t working on the issue of peace specifically. I was contributing toward peace, and that is what the committee recognized: that, indeed, we need to step back and look at a more expanded concept of peace and security. But at that time, it was, of course, very surprising and very, very overwhelming to me. It is still overwhelming. No one prepares you for this. Definitely, nobody ever interviewed me. Nobody ever told me I was going to get it. So it just fell on me. But it’s been a wonderful statement. And I have greatly appreciated it.
Question: What is the significance of the Nobel Committee expanding the definition of peace?
Maathai: You don’t have to recognize only those who bring warring parties together or those who stop a war or the production of arms. For us to enjoy peace, we need to manage our resources more responsibly. We need to share our resources more equitably, both globally and nationally, and we can only do that in a democratic space. If we don’t have space to discuss, to dialogue, to listen to each other, to respect each other’s opinions, we’re going to use our power to control our resources at the expense of those who don’t have them. By doing that, we create a lot of enmity, and eventually we have conflict. In Kenya I see these things happening all the time: resources become depleted, water becomes finished, wells dry up, and the next thing you hear is that tribesmen are fighting a war.
People, especially in Africa, must invest in peace, must invest in preventing conflict. We must allow our children to grow, to go to school, instead of carrying guns to shoot each other.
You cannot have security by putting borders around yourself. You cannot be secure by using your power to control resources and deciding that you can’t share them with the rest of the world. You will not realize peace that way. You will have conflict.
The metaphor that I have adopted is the metaphor of the African stool. The usual African stool has three legs, and the three legs represent for me peace, democracy, and sustainable, equitable management of resources.
Question: How did you first get interested in environmentalism?
Maathai: I was the director of the local chapter of the Red Cross when a group of Northern NGOs decided to establish an Environment Liaison Center in Nairobi in 1973. They needed a local person to run the day-to-day routines. I guess I was a likely candidate because I was already dealing with local issues. Once I joined, I began to be aware of many environmental issues that I, like many other people, were taking for granted.
Question: How did the Green Belt Movement get started and how did you forge the links between environmentalism and women’s rights?
Maathai: Kenyan women were coming together to discuss the issues that we wanted to take to Mexico for the first United Nations conference on women in 1975. Many women in rural areas said they were concerned about firewood, which was the main source of energy. They were concerned about water; there wasn’t adequate clean drinking water. They were concerned about nutritious food, and they were concerned about poverty, especially among women. I immediately suggested that perhaps what we should do with these women is to plant trees. I saw the connection between land degradation and lack of water, so I continued with the program of tree planting. I started with a small group. Then it became two groups. Eventually, it was thousands of groups planting trees to restore the land and improve the quality of life.
Question: Why were you attacked for planting trees?
Maathai: Planting trees, per se, would not have been a problem. Nobody would have bothered me if all I did was to encourage women to plant trees. But I started seeing the linkages between the problems that we were dealing with and the root causes. And one of those root causes was misgovernance. The government had approved the clear-cutting of forests that were catchment areas for water and encouraged the cultivating of exotic plantations. It was the government that had allowed the people to go into the forests and to start cultivating food crops. All this had caused the massive destruction of forests, which could absorb water, which could give us normal rain patterns, and which could sustain the rivers. So I knew that even if I planted all the trees downstream, the stream itself was being destroyed by the government. It was important for us to address the government and to ask the government to stop destroying the catchment areas upstream.
The other problem we were facing was that a lot of our leaders in the government, especially in the 1980s, privatized a lot of these common goods. They would literally cut sections of the forest and privatize them, or they would take open spaces in the cities and urban centers and privatize them. So I knew that a major culprit of environmental destruction was the government. I started raising my voice and started holding seminars educating the public on how the environment was being destroyed and who was destroying it. And how it was important for us to hold our leaders accountable for the better management of resources.
This is what the government did not like because the ruling elite was the beneficiary of these malpractices. And so their reaction was to intimidate, arrest, harass, in the hope that I would give up, or the people with whom I was working would give up, and the movement would die. We knew they were greedy and corrupt. So it was a matter of fighting corruption and fighting greed among the ruling elite.
The women were the major force in the movement. We were the ones who were being harassed. We were the ones who were being prevented from meeting. We were the ones who were the victims of the destruction that was going on. We, therefore, eventually adopted a campaign for our rights, to assert ourselves and to demand better treatment from the government. So the tree planting campaign has always been in the forefront. It is the most visible campaign. But we branched into many other activities in an effort to deal with the root causes of environmental degradation.
Question: What’s your view of biotechnology?
Maathai: People who push for genetically modified seeds in Africa argue that it is good for Africa, that it will eliminate hunger. I am not convinced because while I think that genetically modified seeds can be good, they can also be a disaster for the environment. We need to be very cautious as we analyze the science and as we take this technology to the ordinary farmer in the rural areas. We need to ensure that we don’t take to the farmer something that can be harmful to biodivergence, to the farmer’s own seeds. Also, we shouldn’t take to the farmer a technology that is patented and that will make the farmer dependent on that technology and then say that if you can’t pay for this technology then you have a problem. That will not provide the answer for poverty or for hunger. Today, people are hungry, even though there is a lot of food all over the world. They are hungry because they can’t pay for it. So, if seeds are going to be bioengineered, patented, owned, and then the farmer is not even allowed to use his own seeds, that is making the farmer very dependent on companies that we know can sometimes be insensitive.
Question: You’re in favor of debt forgiveness. Why?
Maathai: I have been involved in a campaign to cancel those debts, especially during the Global Jubilee 2000 campaign. Kenya spends about 40 percent of its income in paying the debt. We are trying to provide free primary education. When we introduced free primary education in the year 2003, one million children went and registered because they didn’t have to pay. Now, we can only give those children eight years of education. After that, we cannot send them to high school. But those students are still too young to be thrown into the world completely unprepared with no skills. Wouldn’t it be better to allow Kenya to use the money it is servicing the debt with to pay for school fees so that those students can have four more years of education? Those debts were solicited through very corrupt deals. Many of those debts never benefited the people. To continue to punish the ordinary people in the villages who never benefited is very, very inhuman and very unfair. But many people don’t know that, especially citizens of the countries that are owed that money. That is why they keep saying: When you borrow, you have to pay.
The other thing we have been advocating for is greater fair trade. Poor developing countries are still being persuaded to sell to the developed market raw materials. That’s what we were doing during the colonial times, and it’s still what we are doing during these post-colonial times. Yet we are being persuaded to open up our markets in the name of free trade. When we open our markets, the manufactured goods come to us and we buy them with the little money we have. We are not able to sell our goods, we are not able to add value to our goods, and when we sell the raw materials, we get very little money. So we are saying, let’s have better trade. Cancel the debts and open your markets, because that’s the only way we can begin to move forward. As long as the world is not prepared to do that, it is really just giving lip service to Africa.
Question: Your supposed comments about AIDS being a Western plot against Africa have caused a furor. What exactly did you say?
Maathai: I never said what was being reported, and I don’t believe in it. I’m not an expert on AIDS. I’m a member of parliament, and members of parliament in Kenya have been charged with the responsibility of educating people and helping them to protect themselves against AIDS, and to try to see if they can access drugs, which are still very expensive, by the way, for many of the people in the rural areas. So I don’t know why the reporter reported that, and I noticed that even though I kept saying that I didn’t say that, the reporter still continued to report what he wanted to report. Of course, I’m very grateful for the work that is being done in this area, and, of course, I’m looking forward like everybody else to the day we’ll find a solution, but I am as ignorant about that area as anybody. The fact that I am a Nobel Peace Prize-winner [laughs] doesn’t make me any wiser in this area. I am sorry that people got me completely wrong.
Question: What are your views of the United States and the Bush Administration’s foreign policy?
Maathai: A lot of people still have enormous admiration for the United States, mostly because of the glamour of power and affluence. They are surprised sometimes when the United States seems not to care, especially about the environment, and decides not to pay attention to the issues the world is trying to deal with. The United States feels it can almost ignore the problems of the world because it is in a very privileged position of being a superpower with very little competition from the rest of the world, and because it still appears like the epitome of success to many people.
So it requires a lot of understanding to realize that everything is not gold and everything is not wonderful in the United States and also to understand that it is not everyone in the United States who subscribes to the philosophy that we see in Washington, D.C.
Question: You were in the United States in the 1960s, when you got a bachelor’s and a master’s. What were your impressions of this country back then?
Maathai: I was in a very small college in Atchison, Kansas, and this actually gave me an opportunity to look at what was happening in the U.S. Those of us who lived in Africa were very cut off from the oppression of black people in this country. It made me much more aware of the human rights struggle. As I went home, this influenced me in terms of pursuing or expecting respect for human rights, respect for providing space, for equality. Women’s issues had not yet come into play. It was more the equality of peoples.
While I was in the United States, Kenya became independent from the British, in 1963. For me, it was a moment to celebrate that finally we were free, as Martin Luther King was crying out at that time. And I thought we were going to enjoy our freedom, we were going to be happy, we were not going to be oppressed anymore. Little did I know what lay ahead. But when I encountered violations of human rights by my own people, my experience in the United States gave me the courage to stand up and say this is not right.
Question: How do you respond to people who say fighting poverty takes precedence over protecting the environment?
Maathai: Poverty is both a cause and a symptom of environmental degradation. You can’t say you’ll start to deal with just one. You’re trapped. When you’re in poverty, you’re trapped because the poorer you become, the more you degrade the environment, and the more you degrade the environment, the poorer you become.
So it’s a matter of breaking the cycle. From the very beginning, that’s what I was telling the women, that we cannot solve all the problems that we face: We are poor, we don’t have water, we don’t have energy, we don’t have food, we don’t have income, we’re not able to send our children to school. There are too many problems we face. We have to break the cycle, and the way to break the cycle for us is to do something that is doable, is to do something that is cheap, do something that is within our power, our capacity, our resources.
Planting a tree was the best idea that I had. I’m very happy that I got the idea. It wasn’t something I had given much thought to, but it turned out to be a wonderful idea because it is easy, it is doable, and you could go and tell ordinary women with no education: OK, this is the tree. It is now flowering. We’re going to observe the tree until it produces seeds. When they’re ready, we’ll harvest them. We’ll dry them, we’ll put them in the soil. If they’re good, we’ll germinate them. We’ll nurture them. We’ll plant them in our gardens. If they’re fruit trees, within five years we will have fruits. If they’re for fodder, our animals will have fodder.
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