Wangari Maathai has made environmental preservation in Africa her life’s work. And what a life it’s been! Born in Kenya in 1940, she was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. She later went on to found the Green Belt Movement – an organization that has helped women plant more than 40 million trees on community lands throughout the continent. She also has been active in politics throughout her career, and in 1998 she became co-chair of the Jubilee 2000 Africa Campaign for debt forgiveness. In recognition of her contributions to sustainable development, democracy and peace, she was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Momentum recently had the honor of speaking with Maathai about climate adaptation in Africa, the role of women in the environmental movement and her hopes for the future.

Was climate change on your mind when you began the Green Belt movement?

When we started back in 1977, climate change was not an issue, at least not in the public forum. But certainly in the last decade it became an issue for the Green Belt Movement. With respect to mitigation and adaptation, it is now a very important part of what we do.

Are you already seeing evidence of a changing climate in East and Central Africa?

Yes, indeed we see that, although some people would probably say it’s part of the cycles that are naturally happening all the time. We have observed, for example, that the snow on Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro has greatly reduced, and this has been confirmed by scientists who have been monitoring the mountains for the last 50 years or so.

Major rivers that used to roll down the mountains are now dried up completely. And of course we have prolonged droughts that do a lot of damage to crops, domestic animals and wildlife. So these are things that we see on the ground. Now obviously if you do not know anything about climate change, you don’t relate to it. You think maybe this is God’s work. But when you know about climate change, you can see that it is happening everywhere in Africa.

What are communities doing to adapt?

One way – especially the communities that work with us – is to plant trees on their farms so that they can stop soil erosion when the rains come. The other is to be actively involved in the protection of watershed areas, especially communities that live near the forest.

Having said that, I think it’s also important to say that one of the major challenges is that you’re also dealing with a lot of comparatively poor people, so quite often they exacerbate these situations. For example, they will take their animals into the forest to graze and that destroys biodiversity. It also reduces the species in the forest. It interferes with the systems in the forest. So, as much as we try to talk to them and try to educate them, poor people usually only think about their immediate needs and their immediate benefits and are not willing to look into the long term. So it’s quite a challenge.

Why is it important to focus on the role of women when thinking about environmental challenges facing the world today?

Because in our part of the world it’s the women who work on the land. It’s the women who fetch firewood. It’s the women who fetch water. And because this was the main need that the communities expressed when we started, it became very much a movement that was driven by women. In Africa, it is the women who most receive the negative impact when the services that are provided by the environment are not available – such as water, firewood or rainfall for their agriculture.

We have seen in the course of time men also participate, but to a lesser degree and mostly because they want to plant trees for commercial purposes rather than for conservation.

So it’s the women who are engaged first?

Yes, and although we know that in some other places men are also involved, women globally have a much greater sensitivity toward the changes in the environment. I think partly because they’re involved in feeding their families, making sure that their families have adequate food, adequate water. So when the environment is degraded and very basic [ecosystem] services are not available, it’s the women who feel it first. And especially women who live in the rural areas and who depend very much on these primary resources.

For many urban dwellers, they lose the touch between the services they’re getting through the tap and the fact that this water is coming from some forest somewhere. But people living in the rural communities are very quick to make the link between their needs and the services they get from the environment. And I think women are more likely to do that before the men.

You wrote recently about environmentalism losing its spiritual core. What did you mean?

What I meant was that I think environmentalism – the appreciation of the environment, the concern for the environment, the feeling for the environment, not just for us as human beings but also for the other forms of life with whom we share the planet – is almost spiritual. You have to be guided and motivated by what I call values – spiritual values. You have to think of the other forms of life that we share the planet with, and we have to have compassion and want to protect them for the common good.

What is the relationship between environmental conservation and achieving the Millennium Development Goals?

Recently I was speaking at the United Nations during the launch of the International Year of Forests. I said Millennium Development Goal 7 – which is sustainability – is almost the mother of all of the goals. If you do not take care of the forest, for example, you will not get rainfall, you cannot grow food and you will not have a healthy population. 

So, when you look at the other Millennium Development Goals, they are so dependent on the fact that you are in an environment which can sustain you and which gives you the services that you need – whether for health, to reduce your poverty or to reduce the gender gap.

What words of wisdom or advice would you have for younger generations who are just becoming aware of the environmental challenges facing the planet?

I would like to say that in many ways I’m very encouraged by the new awareness that you see among the young people, among schoolchildren and among college students. There is so much greater awareness with respect to the environment.

So, what I would like to tell them is to continue understanding that we are part and parcel of the environment, and that the more we take care of the environment, the more we are taking care of ourselves.

What are your hopes for the future as they relate to the environment?

On one side I am very worried about the fact that so many lawmakers all over the world – including many developed countries like the USA, Europe and China – [are guided] by short-term goals and short-term numeration of a few individuals.

I really hope that there will be change, especially in these highly developed societies, because they’re the ones who set the trend. And those who live in poorer regions, we are trying to copy that, we are trying to catch up with them, we are trying to be like them. [But] we need to work together and live in a way that is more sustainable.

Wangari Maathai


In Oslo, Norway, for the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies.


Planting a tree at the Outspan Hotel in Nyeri, Kenya, to mark the launch of Unbowed, her autobiography.

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