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December 2005/January 2006
Planting Peace

The Satya Interview with Wangari Maathai


Tree Nursery: A group of women attending to their site.

Trees = Peace. That’s what the Nobel committee derived when they upset all expectations and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Wangari Maathai last winter. As the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, the first woman chair of a department at the University of Nairobi, and now a member of Kenya’s Parliament, Maathai is a woman of many accomplishments, but it was her work planting trees with the Greenbelt Movement that got the Nobel committee’s—and the world’s—attention. And Maathai is the first African woman to be awarded the prestigious peace prize.

The GBM has expanded to the Pan African Green Belt Network, and to date has seen more than 30 million trees planted—on farms, schools, forests and other public lands—bringing life to often desertified areas. Maathai aims to show the links between environmental conservation, democracy, and peace and believes that responsible management of our resources compounded with good governance will hold the answers to Africa’s problems of conflict and poverty. [Read the first Satya Interview of Maathai, “The Tree Ambassador,” in the June/July 2004 issue.]

While in New York for the UN Summit this past September, Wangari Maathai met with Catherine Clyne to talk about the past year as Nobel Laureate and the connections between trees and peace.

I understand you participated in the Clinton Global Initiative running alongside September’s UN Summit. Can you tell us about the Clinton Initiative?
Clinton has really been devoting a lot of his time to Africa—especially poverty—and the issues we deal with, [which] are always closely connected to governance. So as Clinton tries to push for programs that will eliminate poverty, for example, expanding the sphere of trade, removing barriers in trade, promoting the cancellation of debt, and such issues, he’s also very concerned about the need for good governance and the deliberate cultivation of conflict elimination—and we have enough conflicts in Africa!

He would have people commit themselves—foundations, corporations, individuals, NGOs—and [calculate] how much it would be for them to implement what they were committing to. He announced that there had to be commitments amounting to some $1.5 billion. That was an interesting shift from many organizations or meetings, where you just talk, talk, talk, and make accommodations. But here he introduced this innovative initiative where he was telling people, ‘Let’s not just talk; let’s commit ourselves to really go and do something about the issues we are talking about.’

What do you think about such an independent initiative, one working outside of the UN or the World Health Organization, or other governing or authoritative body?
I think it is a very good initiative because President Clinton of course has extensive connections. He enjoys a lot of respect from leaders throughout the world, and he is supported by people who have resources. He can do a lot using his clout and connections to mobilize resources and to encourage his colleagues [laughs] or his former colleagues, to take the right steps.

When we’re talking about eradicating poverty, oftentimes that tends to be more an economic solution, basically governments and aid groups throwing money at a problem. As an environmentalist and the founder of the Green Belt Movement, how do you integrate real environmental initiatives into eliminating poverty?
To me, poverty is more a symptom of wrong development patterns and poor management of the environment. Management of resources where there is no transparency, no accountability, and most of all, no equitable distribution of resources, adds up to poverty amongst the people. To eliminate poverty, it’s very important to put into place fair and just systems of governance. If you don’t have that, nothing much will happen. You will have a few people—especially those in power—amassing a lot of wealth. The economy can even appear like it is growing very fast, but it’s only a few people who are benefiting.

Because we have billions of people—close to two billion—who live under the poverty line, it is very important to look at three [strategies] to eliminate poverty: good governance, manage resources sustainably and share them equitably, and deliberately work towards peace.

So instead of investing in guns, bombs and other arms to keep society controlled, you can invest in development and in social activities that improve the quality of life for people. This is what governments need to consciously recognize and work towards. We talk about it but we don’t implement it. [Tapping the table.]

Being the first African woman to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize, do you think that has changed the way people perceive you or Africa or the environment, and the issues that most concern you?
I believe that the Norwegian Nobel Committee had several very clear messages it wanted to send to the world. One was the potential in promoting peace. It challenged the world to do that and preempt conflict, rather than [continue in] the way we have been so far—that is, managing ourselves poorly so that we almost cultivate conflict. I think the Nobel Committee was saying, ‘Let us as a human species walk towards preempting conflict. And this program in Kenya, being run by this woman, represents exactly what we are talking about. She tries to promote the good management of the environment, of resources; she has been working for good governance in her country; and she has tried to preempt conflicts that were being facilitated by politicians and were over resources, especially water and land.’

The other message was to tell the African people, ‘You have solutions—if only you would invest in them, embrace them, support them.’ So in a way, the leadership of Africa was challenged to look within for solutions, not depend on other people—outsiders—who come and tell them what they ought to be doing. Africa has so many advisers, but they usually don’t really understand the reasons why Africa behaves the way it does. If you come with money, anybody will welcome you. But it doesn’t mean that what you are offering will have sustainability, which is extremely important. It doesn’t mean it will be owned by the people. And it doesn’t mean that the resources you come with will continue. Quite often somebody comes—excited, with good ideas—and then, after some years, the resources are over and they go and do something else; and they leave you. And because people don’t have the skills and have not owned that program, the program collapses, and the Africans get blamed. People say, ‘They can never sustain anything!’ People must learn to do things for themselves. I do not know of any country that was developed by outsiders.

We can’t solve them here, so why would we be able to solve them in Africa?
Yes, absolutely. Americans are also very impatient, they have this urge to solve problems as fast as possible. They have such a high capacity, and resources are not usually their problem. They are challenged by a problem and they want to see that problem being solved. If it is not being solved, they want to know why.

But you can’t [work that way] in a continent, [like] in Africa, where you have so much baggage of history, of colonialism or what, and I’m not saying that to blame it on those experiences. I’m just saying those people need to look into [and] discover themselves. They need to learn to do things for themselves.

[If you] continue to do things for people, you disempower them, making them become lethargic and think that the government, aid, or the international community, have to come and solve their problems. People must be encouraged to understand that the burden of development lies on them. That applies to the leaders, as well as to the ordinary people.

That’s an extraordinarily powerful message. Do you think African leaders are actually opening up to that message now?
I believe they are. During the Clinton Global Initiative a lot of heads of state came, including leaders like President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, President [Paul] Kagame of Rwanda, [Olusegun] Obasanjo from Nigeria. It was very good to hear them speak, not very different from the way I’m speaking. Of course it’s much easier for me to speak the way I’m speaking because I’m not the president. I have sometimes heard them say that their constraints are that they may have the will to do it, but it’s not as if they themselves as individuals can do it. They depend on their ministers, civil servants, army, police…so the culture of wanting to do the right thing, and the culture of embracing the sense of responsibility, must also be among these other agents of governance. But it is very important to have the president provide the leadership, and for him to be seen to do what he is advocating.

Earlier this year you were appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador for the Congo Basin. Can you tell us about this?
That is one of the very important initiatives that came out of this prize. Many African leaders congratulated me and some of them have been going out of their way to give me special roles. One of them was to be a Goodwill Ambassador for the Congo forest ecosystem, which is very threatened with deforestation—both legal and illegal—and the governments inside that region do not have the financial and the technical capacity to protect the forest.

This forest is the second lung of the world, the second largest forest ecosystem next to the Amazon. The Congo Basin should not only be valuable to the African people and the people of the region, but to the whole world. So they called me to a meeting where they signed a treaty and asked me to be a spokesperson for the Congo Basin. Here is a group of African leaders showing extraordinary leadership for the protection [of the forest]. I keep saying ‘Don’t tell me they are not committed—let’s support the initiative they have put on the table. [Taps table.] And let’s test their commitment.’ I know that presidents, such as Thabo Mbeki, who is not even within that region, are very supportive. He told me he is very concerned about that ecosystem, because if we lose [it], it will be tragic, not only for Africa but for the world.

To me, [being a Goodwill Ambassador for the Congo Basin] is a very important responsibility, which goes beyond my country, beyond the region. I try to raise the issue and appeal to governments and foundations to support these governments. My main issue really is to bring to the world the importance of this ecosystem, to plead with the world to intervene so that it is properly managed, and to take advantage of the fact that 11 heads of state are willing to work with the international community to protect this Congo forest ecosystem.

Do you know, roughly about how many trees have been planted by members of the Green Belt Movement since you received the Nobel Prize?
I wouldn’t be surprised if we have planted a least a million.

We’ve been talking about ways that the West can help with some of the problems in Africa. For our readers, how can they help?
One way of course is to raise these issues—such as the Congo forest ecosystem [and] the need to end the conflicts, such as Darfur—so that we can concentrate on development. The other one is to assist the Green Belt Movement. We have launched a Green Belt Movement International and are going to have an office here in New York. Our focus is to look for opportunities to expand this beyond Kenya, beyond Nairobi, to the rest of the world. Anybody [can] practice some of these approaches in their own communities, whether they are in the rural areas or in cities. Thirdly is to have a forum to share the approach, because even if you don’t do exactly what the Green Belt Movement is doing, you can be inspired to [do] something for the environment, to seek support in our advocacy work for the issues such as encouraging people to use resources responsibly. In this country people are very aware of the campaign to recycle and they do a lot of recycling, reusing and reducing the excess. This is very important, especially here in the industrialized countries where consumption is a way of life.

A birth right.
Yes. And in Japan that campaign is picking up; it is being popularized as mottainai. [An expression meaning roughly ‘What a waste!’] It calls for respect for how we utilize resources. I picked up that word when I was in Japan. It is not a matter of changing your quality of life or denying yourself the good things in life; it’s really more of using with respect and not wasting, and bearing in mind that there are many people in the world who also want to access those resources—including the future generations. So those who overconsume sometimes forget there will be others after. And if there is not enough here, then they will have to go to other countries to get it, and that’s how you generate conflict. So it’s very important, therefore, to continue this education and this exposure. We need a critical mass of people who really understand this linking so that we can all work towards a better world.

We are also asking for people who would like to partner with us in our efforts to just expand the work on the ground: plant more trees. And that requires money—an average of four million shillings per year to just do that work—so we are trying to raise money.

Eileen Collins, commander of the space shuttle Discovery, said that [when she was in space], over Africa she saw a lot of dust. She said she saw that the rivers were brown with silt and she witnessed a lot of deforested areas and devegetated areas. I am quite sure some of that dust was coming from the Sahara Desert. So I said, ‘What I need to do is plant more trees and get rid of that dust!’ And to do that, that means education and millions of trees. If I had my way, every grain of soil [bangs on the table] would be covered with some form of vegetation.

To learn more about the Green Belt Movement see



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