Environmental activist Wangari Maathai passed away Monday, September 25th. In the following interview with Marianne Schnall, the Nobel Laureate talks about planting 40 million trees (including one with Barack Obama), her global perspective, and her philosophy of life.
Wangari Maathai was born in Kenya and was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. In 1976, she introduced the idea of planting trees with communities. She established The Green Belt Movement (GBM) in Kenya in 1977, initially to address deforestation. Later the issues of community empowerment and environmental conservation were incorporated. To date, over 40 million trees have been planted, primarily by women, across Kenya. She and the GBM received the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, making her the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. In January 2006, Professor Maathai, along with sister Laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Betty Williams and Mairead Maguire founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative. She has written several books, including The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience, her memoir Unbowed, and her important new book, The Challenge for Africa .
Marianne Schnall: There are so many issues affecting Africa and our world, what was your pathway to the environment becoming your cause?
Wangari Maathai: Well, I think my understanding was very basic because I started with ordinary women from the countryside expressing their very basic needs for water, for food, for firewood, and for income, and then realizing that what the women were describing was an environment — they were coming from an environment that was failing to sustain them. And so looking at that environment and especially because I had grown up in the same environment, I realized that there are very serious activities such as deforestation, loss of the soil that was gradually destroying that environment and impoverishing them. And so that actually became my entry point. And I suggested that we plant trees and they agreed and we started, but as we did plant those trees, it almost became like a school for me to understand that what the women were describing were symptoms, and that it was necessary for us to go to the cause. And that cause became sometimes physical destruction of the environment, and then the question was by whom, and that led me into issues of irresponsible management of resources by government. So one thing just led to the other and eventually I got a much better understanding of how the environment is destroyed and how it could be restored.
MS: As the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, how do you see the connection between the environment and peace, in that region, and in the world?
WM: For me, as I say, as I got deeper and deeper into the issues, I came to realize that so often when we use the resources, first and foremost there is that degradation of the environment, as I was seeing in my own country. And I noticed that when resources degrade, there is less of them. And especially land, which is one natural resource that most people in the world want to access — or resources such as water, which we all need. When these resources are degraded or polluted, then there are fewer of them for the rest of us, and then we start competing for them and eventually as we compete, there are those of us, who have the capacity, who have the ability to be the controllers, to decide who accesses them, how much they access, and eventually there is a conflict. Those who feel marginalized, those who feel excluded, eventually react in an effort to get their own justice, and we have conflict.
So it became very clear to me that whether it is at the local level in Kenya, where we had tribal clashes over land and water, or whether it is at the global level, where we are fighting over water, over oil, over minerals — that a lot of the conflicts we have in the world are actually due to competition over resources. And that’s how I saw that one way in which we can promote peace, is by promoting sustainable management of our resources, equitable distribution of these resources, and that the only way you can actually do that, is that then you have to have a political, economic system that facilitates that. And then you get into the issues of human rights, justice, economic justice, social justice, and good governance or democratic governance. That’s how it ties up, and I was very happy when the Norwegian Nobel Committee saw what I was trying to do.
MS: The Green Belt Movement has now planted 30 million trees. What is the significance or importance of planting trees?
WM: Well, for me planting a tree is a very doable thing. It’s not complicated, it doesn’t require technology, it doesn’t require much knowledge, but it can be a very important entry point into communities understanding how they destroy their own resources, but how they can also restore those resources, and not wait for their government or international agencies to come and help them. And you can educate people therefore to understand how they can preempt their own conflict. And how they need to not only protect their resources themselves, but also demand that their government, which is supposed to be custodians of these resources, should take care of them. So quite often when people hear about our work, they only think about the actual action of planting a tree. But a tree for us is a symbol, it’s an entry point, and once you are into the communities then you help the communities to try and understand the linkages and to try to mobilize them for action.