MS: The Green Belt Movement seemed to particularly involve women. What was the connection between empowering women and the work of The Green Belt Movement?
WM: This whole idea started in the national council of women, we were trying to prepare to go to Mexico in 1975, in a time when you will remember, when there was a global women’s movement. And the very first United Nations Conference on Women was to take place in Mexico in 1975, and as we were preparing to join the rest of the women in Mexico, we organized around the umbrella of the National Council of Women of Kenya. So it was very natural for me to reach out to the women, and address the issues that they were raising. The second reason is, in that part of Africa, it’s the women who actually are the first victims of environmental degradation, because they are the ones who fetch water, so if there is no water, it is them who walk for days — or for hours I should say — looking for water. They are the ones who fetch firewood. They are the ones who produce food for their families. So it’s easy for them to explain when the environment is degraded and to persuade them to take action, because they can see where it will impact them directly positively. And although trees take a long time to grow, fortunately within the tropics, trees grow relatively fast, so that in five to ten years, you already have trees that you can already use for fencing, for building.
For timber you may have to wait for 30 years — but in the meantime, you get firewood, you get fodder, you get building materials, and if you get the branches, you already have firewood. So the tree is actually a very good way of addressing these issues. And women became very good partners. But we also learned that very quickly the men realized that planting trees, yes indeed, it is a very good way of improving the quality of the land, and the value of the land. So many of the men eventually joined in, and also the children joined in. Men, mostly because of the economic value of the land. So although we usually start with the women — even today when we go to new areas, we start with women, but very quickly it becomes an activity that most people want to be involved in.
MS: I know you have been traveling around the US and around the world talking about the issue of climate change. What insights do you have on the state of the environment looking at it from a global perspective?
WM: Well, I think globally on the environment, we can say that we have great environmental awareness as compared to, for example, the seventies when the world started really serious global mobilization of environmental awareness with the United Nations Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. Since that time there has been a lot of awareness, not only among governments and experts, but also among ordinary citizens — almost everybody now understands. And that is a great accomplishment that has been made. And as we know, most governments in the world now have a minister of environment, so at least politically you can say most governments have accepted the principle of taking care of the environment.
But I must say, especially in Africa, I haven’t seen sufficient prioritization of the environment, mostly through cuts to the national budget, you can see that the government will spend more money in the ministry of defense rather than the ministry of the environment. And yet, a lot of, as we were just saying earlier, conflicts, are brought about by environmental degradation. So you would expect that the government would invest in the environment in the hope that we can preempt conflicts that will come as people fight over diminishing resources, especially water, and land. But they don’t. So I still have a lot of apprehension about the level of commitment, political commitment, by governments, about the environment, especially in Africa.
MS: If you could have the ears of world leaders, what is the one message you would most want to tell them? We have made a lot of progress, but what more needs to be done?
WM: First of all, I just think that more resources need to be allocated to the environment. I was happy to hear, for example, President Barack Obama say that he would like to commit the United States of America, in the same spirit that they had committed to go to the moon with President Kennedy, that he would like to see that kind of commitment so that the United States of America can move away from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy. And I know that if America did that, because of the power that America has on what other governments do in the world, I am sure it would help to make the shift that is needed to move away from sources of energy that continue to pollute the environment to cleaner sources of energy.
And that should be a requirement, for example, for African countries, many African countries that are supported by the developed world — it is possible to demand that a good amount of resources is allocated to the protection of the environment. And especially now that we are talking about global warming, especially in Africa, the protection of the forests, and especially the Congo forest. As you know, I am the goodwill ambassador of the Congo forest, and we have established this fund which we call the Congo forestry fund, to try to help the governments in that region protect those forests so that we have standing forests. And I am really hoping that the world is gathered right now in Poznan and I am hoping that the capitals of the world will be sending the message that we must protect the forests and that standing forests must be part of the solution that we want to see in the world. That would probably be one of the important messages that I would really like to send to all the capitals of the world.
MS: Sometimes people look out at the world or they hear these scary stories about global warming and climate change and it feels so overwhelming, and often times it can make somebody just feel helpless to do anything about it. What can people do to get involved? What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a part of the change, but just doesn’t know how they can make a difference?
WM: Well, if we had a lot of time I would give you a story of a hummingbird – I usually give the story of the hummingbird and say that this hummingbird — well, I can’t tell you it all but if you Google it you might get that story because I have told it so many times it is now in the Google [note: here is the link]. But it is essentially the story of a hummingbird that refuses to join the rest of the animals when a forest is burning and instead decides to go and bring water from the river, with its little beak, takes a drop of water every time and brings it and puts it on the fire. But the fire is so huge. But the moral of the story is that it doesn’t matter how small the action is, if we all do the little we can, collectively we can make a difference.
And there are very many little things that we all can do. For example, I learned in America a long time ago, the three R’s, the principle of three R’s — reuse, reduce, recycle. And as I say those words, there are so many things individually we can do to reduce — we don’t need to consume as much as we are consuming. Reduce. And by reusing, we can reuse a lot of things we just throw into the dumpsite. And reduce the production. The more we reuse, the more we can reduce. And in Kenya, one of the ways in which we do that is to promote the use of reusable bags instead of using plastic which is then thrown into the environment, especially the very thin plastic. The other thing that I learned from Japan was that you can also try not to waste, especially people who live in very highly industrialized worlds — they are so wasteful. And we waste because there is plenty.
And this concept in Japan, by the way, is called “Mottainai” and it is a concept that is based in Buddhism and it used to encourage Japanese before they became so rich — it used to encourage them to be grateful about what they get from their resource, from their world, from their environment — to not waste resources, and to be grateful. And also to be respectful. Respect, be grateful, do not waste. And I was told as the Japanese children would eat rice, even if they left one grain on their plate they would be told by their parents, “Oh, what a mottainai! You finish your food!” And it’s only one grain of rice. So, there is so much wasted of resources where we have a lot of it.
And let me give you a story — recently I was in the Congo, and I was visiting a very commendable milling factory in the middle of the Congo forest. And that factory is supposed to be harvesting trees sustainably. That is why I had gone to visit them. And they did demonstrate to me how they take these huge, 200 year-old trees, and they actually mark the tree that they are going to harvest. And I was very impressed. But — eventually when we go to the factory, I asked them, “How much of this tree do you use?” And they told me only 35 percent — the rest is wasted! The rest is put on fire because they have nothing to do with it — they say they don’t know what to do with it, so they allow people to come and burn it into charcoal — literally burning it, reducing it into ashes. That’s waste. So when we say, please do not waste. Be respectful. And be grateful. You know, when I looked at that tree and realized that only 35 percent will be used, I just thought to myself — what a mottainai! Wasting 65 percent of a tree that is 200 years old. Honest.
So there is a lot that we individually can do. In our homes, when we go shopping, as we travel, there is so much we can do. And even though we think that that particular action at an individual level may be very small, just imagine if it is repeated several million times. It will make a difference. So that hummingbird’s actions may look very small, but it is very powerful if it is repeated many million times.