Professor Wangari Muta Maathai, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, is a woman rich in moral courage. A mother, scientist, environmentalist, statesperson, author, and peace worker, she eventually realized international acclaim for her work: the simple act of planting trees.
Maathai grew up in a traditional Kenyan highlands family consisting of one father and four mothers, was educated by catholic missionaries, and after demonstrating academic excellence, received a Kennedy Family Foundation "airlift" grant to obtain a university education in the United States (as did Barack Obama's father). She returned to Kenya and became the first east African woman ever to earn a Ph.D. However, this western educated woman, eager to assume leadership responsibilities in service to her country, was considered a threat by fellow academics and her university research career became fraught with sexism.
She married, started a family, supported her husbands' political aspirations, but continued her fight for equal rights in the workplace - challenging long-standing Kenyan social protocols. Professionally embarrassed, her husband left the family and filed for divorce. During the proceedings, she was publicly humiliated for being "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control."
Unemployed, Maathai looked for ways to respond to the needs of the poor women in her country and came to realize that her struggle with discrimination was a luxury compared to the impoverishment of Kenya's rural women and redirected her energy accordingly. Concerned about her country's deteriorating natural resources, she became clear that a correlation existed between governmental corruption and deforestation, and healing the environment was vital to Kenya's future. Through trial and error, she developed simple programs that paid women to plant trees in their own communities, providing work and income, and eventually fuel and housing resources to hundreds of thousands of women.
Maathai named her organization the Green Belt Movement and despite its great accomplishments combining human rights advocacy and environmental preservation, she continued to draw harsh criticism from ruling governmental leaders. She was frequently attacked and beaten unconscious by police, arrested over a dozen times, and was the recipient of frequent death threats. Even after members of her organization were murdered, she persevered.
Once Kenya's long reigning autocratic dictator was deposed, she ran for parliamentary public office and won the election by 98%. As assistant environmental minister, she redirected a portion of the country's security budget to retrain Kenyan soldiers to plant trees. In 2004, Maathai became the first African woman ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Two years later, an informative, comprehensive and detailed autobiography of her extraordinary life, Unbowed: A Memoir was published in English. She continues to receive death threats.
Professor Maathai spoke with SuperConsciousness Magazine just prior to her September 2008 visit to the United States where she joined fellow Nobel Peace Laureate Al Gore in calling upon the U.S. to help combat the rapidly accelerating tropical deforestation as a central element in the fight against global poverty, climate change and international instability.
SC: Professor Maathai, thank you for taking the time to talk with us about the important relationship between human rights, peace and the protective management of natural resources.
WM: Especially here in Africa, when the environment is allowed to degrade, resources become scarce and people start competing for those resources. And sometimes they do so by seeking political power which will give a few in control access to those resources. This becomes a source of conflict.
Most times the politics are very localized so that people may be fighting over a watering hole and even land, but other times that conflict can be very big and can even cross borders. Those people achieving political power use this power to control the resources of the country. And where, of course, our resources are very scarce, the conflict becomes very intense. But when you look, it is really only the leader of that particular tribe trying to use the members of their tribe to acquire power so they can control the natural resources. Time and time again, competing for the natural resources, whether they be land, water or animals, becomes the basis for conflict.
SC: So you mobilized women to plant trees. How has this project empowered women as well as contributed to the environment?
"Time and time again, competing for the natural resources, whether they be land, water or animals, becomes the basis for conflict"
WM: When working with very poor women, the empowerment comes from developing many different skills. Along with planting the trees, education on sustainable management is provided. Paying them to care for their trees helps to develop good governance and is necessary in the work towards peace.
This is important for the environment because as they plant the trees, they protect the soils, they protect the forests, they protect the rivers, and so they are protecting the environment. At the same time, they begin to understand that what they are doing is not only good for them and not only good for sustaining their livelihood, but they are also helping to prevent conflicts.
SC: Is the income the women receive, which is an important part in creating a local economy, also important in establishing long-term peace?
"They begin to understand that what they are doing is not only good for them and not only good for sustaining their livelihood, but they are also helping to prevent conflicts"
WM: Yes, because poverty also contributes towards conflict.
What we see often is that poor people are very easily manipulated and persuaded to join the rise of conflicts. Because they are very poor, they perceive they have nothing to lose and sometimes they feel that is the only way that they can obtain access to resources. So overcoming poverty is extremely important to us in mitigating conflicts. When women plant trees and care for them and the trees survive, we ensure the women will get compensated financially in order to put money in their pockets.
SC: Initially, the planting of trees acts as a source of income but later provides the resources for fuel and shelter. Does giving people a sense of personal worth also help to empower them to be able to tackle greater social issues?
WM: Yes, and that is very important. I have been lucky to go to schools, to travel to America and receive advanced education and my educational exposure has given me a head start. I have enough sugar and milk and do not struggle for survival, so it is much easier for me to speak out. But when I work with poor people, I understand how easy it is to forget about tomorrow and just think about now.
Initially, as women plant the trees, the money they receive is used to help rebuild their households. Women buy food, they buy clothing. They do a lot for the survival of their family by purchasing basic household goods. But then over time as the trees mature, they provide food as well as income. I know women who have educated their children by selling the trees they planted to pay for their children's school tuition. There are women who have built their homes by using the wood from trees they planted themselves. This program provides many families with great satisfaction.
SC: As you work with women, educating them on the linkages between sustainable management and peace, does the training also include developing conflict resolution skills for the women to help address conflicts in outlying communities?
WM: We have created forums for peace in which we encourage people who are planting trees as well as people who are not involved in planting trees but are affected by the conflicts, to come together and learn how to talk with each other. They learn why they have problems with each other, how to forgive, reconcile and move forward without bitterness. This is a very difficult exercise because you are dealing with the people who have killed each other, who have hung each other, who have been involved in the destroying of others' properties. These are very deeply held, long-standing conflicts. But nevertheless, through this peace-building program we are really trying to break the cycle of hatred and desire to avenge.
SC: What is your dream for the future? What does this dream look like?
"Through this peace-building program we are really trying to break the cycle of hatred and desire to avenge"
WM: I would want to see a much greater commitment to the environment from international governments. We are experiencing the impact of climate change here in Africa, but the issue must be addressed globally. I would like to see the United States and the other industrialized countries largely responsible for the green house gases become willing to come up with mechanisms to ensure that we can survive the impact of current climate change.
I also hope to see the governments of Africa commit to good governance. Africa is a very rich continent but we have been ridden with bad governance, of leaders who have been less concerned about the people's welfare and more concerned about acquisition of wealth and the privileges that come with power. So I have a dream that one day we will have leadership that is more concerned about the people and the land on which they live and not so much on arsenals and golf courses.
SC: Do you perceive that your women’s educational program will help instill values that can be taught to the next generation? Will the children of these women who plant trees become able to hold steadfast to those values and support creation of a government that will be people driven and not driven by the acquisition of wealth?
WM: That’s what I have been working for these last few decades, and that’s what I hope for. But I also know how difficult it is to convince people who are poor that they can create change. Also, it is not easy to convince leaders who are enjoying enormous power and privilege for themselves that it is not necessarily good for everybody else. This is easier said than done.
Many leaders do support these values, but when it comes to action, they are not willing to take action. They are not willing to sacrifice. They are not willing to give service.
"It is not easy to convince leaders who are enjoying enormous power and privilege for themselves that it is not necessarily good for everybody else"
There was a time when we did not care very much about how human beings were treating each other. But today, everybody wants to appear like they respect human rights, that they respect personal freedoms and there are many more governments that advocate for better governance. So things are starting to change and I’m sure they will continue to change. But I also hope that this is the focus for a majority of people because we don’t have much time. We need to change, but we need to do so very quickly.
For more information, go to www.greenbeltmovement.org
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