As the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, Professor Wangari Maathai, 65, has left an indelible mark on the struggle for environmental and social justice. As founder of the Green Belt Movement, in her native Kenya, Maathai has led thousands of Kenyan women in a crusade to protect environmental resources by planting over 30 million trees.
On Saturday March 5, Professor Maathai appeared on WBAI’s Afrikaleidoscope with Elombe Brath. I sat in on the taping of the radio show, captivated by Maathai’s passion and pure joy in working towards restoring balance between the earth and its inhabitants. She exuded confidence without a trace of arrogance, seemingly humbled by acknowledgement of her accomplishments and grounded by the reality of the work ahead. “[The Nobel Peace Prize] is not an honor for a single person, this is a moment for humanity, a moment to understand that what has been honored is the struggle of millions of people all over the world. The Nobel Committee has decided that it wants to recognize these people by saying that the environment, democratic space and peace are inseparable causes; for those of us who work in these areas we must see them as such in order to bring all of these movements together to truly create a better world,” said Maathai.
Since winning the Nobel Peace Prize in October of 2004, Wangari Maathai has been at the forefront of the international stage, promoting environmental conservation and community development. She is an example of the boundless potential of grassroots organizing, and the Nobel Committee’s recognition of her movement’s success has brought attention to the triumph of self-determination.
During the 1970s Kenya, like many other East African countries, began noticing the damaging effects of logging and the conversion of natural forests into commercial agricultural land. The deforestation, or cutting down of trees, involved in both processes created a rippling effect, that would be felt for decades to come. Environmental experts say that a forest cover of 10% is required for a country to sustain life naturally – availability of rain, availability of underground water, soil fertility, clean air and prevention of soil erosion; at the time Kenya’s forest cover was less than 2%. Although the government made an effort to counter the problem by creating tree plantations, they only further complicated the issue as the imported trees began to kill off native vegetation, which had a greater capacity for retaining water to be later released in forms of streams and rivers.
Like many other Kenyans Professor Maathai observed the alarming trend, at the time she was an active member of the National Council of Women of Kenya. Through that forum she became privy to the how deforestation effected the day to day living of many families. Maathai listened to rural women who complained about the lack of firewood (a main source of fuel in the region), clean drinking water, food and income. In 1977 she established the Green Belt Movement, focused on planting trees in order to conserve the environment and improve the overall quality of life; after all trees provide clean air, clean drinking water, enriched soil for food and a source of income (through the sale of firewood and fruits).
During her acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, Maathai said, “Tree planting became a natural choice to address some of the initial basic needs identified by women. Also, tree planting is simple, attainable and guarantees quick, successful results within a reasonable amount of time, which sustains interest and commitment.” Her ingenuity empowered thousands of women to take a personal role in sustaining their environment and working towards ensuring a healthy future for their families.
As Green Belt’s core of committed members grew the organization broadened its horizons and began to campaign for improvements in education, women’s rights, and the democratic process. However, not everyone was impressed or encouraged by Maathai’s activism, for much of the 1980s and 1990s Green Belt went head to head with Kenya’s then president Daniel Arap Moi, whose vision of progress was not inclusive of the needs of the people. One particular incident, which gained Green Belt notoriety was the regime’s plans to build a 60-story skyscraper in Uhuru Park, one of the few remaining expanses of greenery left in the capital city. Professor Maathai took legal action to stop construction, and although her case was dismissed her protest gained so much international attention, particularly in Western countries that provided Kenya with necessary aid, that the project was eventually abandoned. </! P
Other confrontations were far more violent as Maathai was arrested and once beaten unconscious by police for demonstrating against the government’s environmental practices. “If you try to promote justice and equity you are going to be an enemy of those who want to control, who want to exploit, who want to be in charge at the expense of others,” said Maathai. Wangari Maathai recognizes that she is lucky to be alive, as so many of her comrades throughout the world, like Ken Saro-Wiwa of Nigeria and Chico Mendes of Brazil, died for their commitment to environmentalism.
Undeterred by the threat of violence and struggle, Wangari Maathai continued to speak out against corruption and political greed, even unsuccessfully running for president in 1997. By 2002 President Arap Moi stepped down from power, ushering in a more environmentally progressive regime under the leadership of Emilio Mwai Kibaki. In the same election, Maathai was elected to Parliament with 98% of the votes, and by 2003 she was appointed as the Deputy Minister of the Environment.
Through her years of progressive work with the environment, Wangari Maathai began to see the inextricable connection between the “sustainable management of the earth’s resources” and obtaining world peace. Many of the military conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries have been fought over natural resources: oil in the Middle East, minerals and land in Africa; which speaks to the need for a less self-indulgent approach to management of the world’s resources. With the recent enactment of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, which calls for the reduction of carbon emissions, environmentalists’ work to create a more environmentally sound future is coming to fruition. Over 141 countries have signed the agreement; however, the major emitter of greenhouse gas, the United States, has yet to get on board. Yet Maathai is encouraged by the millions of citizens in this country who are still adhering to the principles of the agreement. “Eventually it will be the citizens of this country that will put enough pressure on their governments, but it will come from the citizens themselves agreeing that they want to change their consumptive patterns,” said Professor Maathai.
Maathai is a strong believer in self-determination, a principle that has remained a mainstay of her movement. Her advocacy for self-resilience for the people of Kenya, can be easily applied to any struggle for liberation, particularly that of people of color in this country. “I wanted to empower our people to understand that the solutions to their problems lie within them, and while there may be many forces that want to keep them where they are, that would almost want to see them remain impoverished, remain dis-empowered¼we have power within us and we can do things for ourselves. All that is needed is a commitment, patience and persistence,” said Maathai. “Things don’t happen overnight. If you plant a tree today it will not give you fruits tomorrow; you have to have the patience and the persistence to stay there and make sure it survives.”
Wangari Maathai attributes much of her success to those who have come before her, the revolutionaries such as Martin Luther King and the Mau Mau, who fought for her freedom, a freedom that has allowed her to carry on their mission of ensuring a prosperous future for all humankind.