Kenyan Nobel winner finds lessons in creation
By Michelle Martin
Wangari Maathai never planned to start an environmental movement. She never planned to be a politician.
All she wanted to do was plant some trees, said the winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize in a presentation at Northwestern University’s Sheil Catholic Center June 21. But from the seeds of trees grew a commitment to environmental and social justice.
“I found myself not just a woman wanting to plant trees to provide food and firewood,” she said. “I found myself a woman fighting for justice, a woman fighting for equity. I started planting trees and found myself in the forefront of fighting for the restoration of democracy in my country.”
Maathai, now a member of Kenya’s parliament, recounted the beginnings of her Greenbelt Movement, which she started after returning to Nairobi after getting a biology degree in the United States. While she was studying at Benedictine College in Kansas, her homeland had embarked on a modernization program.
When that happened, she said, land was privatized, and farmers switched from subsistence agriculture to cash crops, such as coffee and tea. As they did so, they cleared the forested mountainsides to make room.
The changes devastated rural women, Maathai said. With the new system, the property belonged to the men, and the women had to rely on them for income. They had no land for the food crops they had traditionally grown, and they no longer had forests from which to collect firewoodtheir primary source of energy. Water that had run off the mountains in clear streams had become silty, as the trees no longer held the soil in place.
These changes were borne in upon Maathai as she worked with women’s groups to prepare for an international conference in Mexico.
“It occurred to me that some of the problems women talked about were connected to the land,” she said. “We didn’t need to go to Mexico for someone to tell us what to do. ... If you plant trees, you give them firewood. If you plant trees, you give them food.”
But it wasn’t that easy.
“When I said, ‘Let’s plant trees,’ they said, ‘We don’t know how,’” she said. “Before this, we didn’t plant trees in Kenya. God planted the trees. But with all the deforestation, he needed some help.”
Small groups organized to work together, and each group taught other groups. Soon, thousands of small groups were producing seedlings and planting them. As they did, she said, they learned for the first time to see trees, and to see the lack of them.
“We need to see vegetation, and see devegetation, to see the naked soil and to want to cover it with its green dress,” she said. “We need to see the whole thing. We need to see ecosystems.”
Once the trees were planted came the hard part, Maathai said: protecting and nurturing them so they could grow. That meant not only cultivating them, but speaking to those who would destroy them, from vandals to government officials whose policies led to environmental damage in the first place.
That was when Maathai and the women’s groups ran afoul of the government of former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, who ran a de facto one-party system until 1991. Multi-party elections returned then, and Moi was voted out of office in 2002, said Maathai, who was visiting the Chicago area for the 100th anniversary convention of Rotary International. Her presentation at the Sheil Center was sponsored by Sheil and the North Shore Peace Initiative.
“Initially, nobody cared that I was organizing these women into groups,” Maathai said. “It was just a bunch of women planting trees. Who cares?”
But when the women challenged corrupt officials, Maathai found herself beaten and jailed. She began to work for systemic change.
“You can’t have bad government and good management of the environment,” she said. And global degradation of the environment will only widen the gap between the rich and the poor, driving the poor into desperation and violence.
Maathai said she was encouraged by the Nobel committee’s decision to honor the Greenbelt movement, because it worked to avert conflict, rather than taking the more usual route of recognizing those who try to broker peace after war begins.
“We as a human family can decide to pre-empt conflict,” she said. “We have to manage ourselves as people who want peace. We have to manage our resources as people who want peace. We must not use our power to lord over others. If we do, they will become frustrated and angry and hateful, and do whatever they can to hit back.” Now, in addition to serving as deputy environmental minister, Maathai is trying to expand the reach of the Greenbelt Movement, working to protect the Congo National Forest and to bring trees back to Haiti, which also has been devastated by deforestation.
The traditional culture of Kenya held the environment sacred, Maathai said, with a wisdom that might not have been scientifically based, but kept ecosystems going for thousands of years. That was lost with the advent of Christianity and cash-based agriculture, she said.
But Maathai, a Catholic, sees the fault not in the faith, but in its practitioners.
“I am re-reading the Bible, and I start with Genesis,” she said. “The first thing I see is that God made everything before man and woman. In his wisdom, he knew that if he made us first, we would die. What he made first does not need what he made last, but what he made last needs what came first.”