Wangari Maathai: Superwoman

(This is the full interview; read the edited version that appeared in the print issue of Momentum)

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? Is it part of the movement today?

Well, when we started back in 1977, in the late 70s, obviously climate change was not an issue, at least not in the public forum, probably in laboratories where the people were trying to measure the changes in temperatures in different parts of the world and making some observations. But certainly in the last decade it became an issue for the Green Belt Movement, and fortunately we thought about what we are doing in planting trees and protecting forests and protecting soil was very much part of what was to become an important issue with climate change with respect to mitigation and adaptation so it is now a very important part of what we do.

Are you already seeing evidence of a changing climate in the areas of Africa where you work? If so, please describe.

Yes indeed we see that, and although some people would probably say it’s part of the cycles that are naturally happening all the time, in agreement with the scientific evidence that has been produced, especially through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have observed for example that the snow on Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro has greatly reduced, and this confirmed by scientists who have been monitoring it maybe for the last 50 years or so. And where for example in Kilimanjaro I have personally flown, have been in a plane which flew over what was originally a very thick carpet on top of Mount Kilimanjaro, you see patches of ice over the mountain. And we have also seen on the ground, drying up of rivers. Major rivers that used to roll down the mountains are now dried up completely. And of course we do have prolonged droughts. When they do come, they are very prolonged and they do a lot of damage to crops, to domestic animals, to 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 this is happening in Africa everywhere.

What are communities doing to adapt?

Well, one way, of course, 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, or they have the rainwater 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 get caught up in cutting out activities that 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. And so as much as we try to talk to them and try to educate them, poor people usually only think about their immediate needs, their immediate benefits, and are not willing to look into the long term. So it’s quite a challenge.

I’ve read a number of your interviews where you discuss the role of women in the environmental movement. Why is it important to focus on women when thinking about the environmental challenges facing the world today?

For us specifically, because the movement was started in the National Council of Women of Kenya and because in our part of the world it’s the women who work on our part of 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. And in that part of the world it is they who most receive the negative impact when the services that are provided by the environment are not available – such as water, such as firewood, such as rainfall for their agriculture. So the women in that part of the world have become extremely important in responding even before the men to the need to protect the environment.

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, but women generally, even globally, women 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 these very basic 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 from their source. Many of them get water from the river or from the streams or from a well, and not necessarily from a tap, where if you’re in an urban center, all you do is turn the tap. 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 do so.

You wrote recently about environmentalism losing its spiritual core. What do you mean by that – and what can we do about it?

What I meant there was that I think that 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, and you have to be guided and you have to be motivated by what I call values, spiritual values. And that’s why I say sometimes we can lose that and just think of the environment vis a vis the human beings and the services we get from the environment and forget the fact that we have to be, you have to think of the other forms of life that we share the planet with and we have to have compassion with and want to protect them – for the common good, but also because we need them. And this is mostly guided by spiritualism that sometimes we lose when we are not thinking that way.

In your mind, what is the relationship between environmental conservation and achieving the Millennium Development Goals?

Well, recently I was talking at the U.N. giving the launch of the International Year of the Forests which is 2011, and I said in that statement that to me, the Millennium Development Goal number 7 – which is sustainability, that means the environment, that means conservation, that means biodiversity and all the services that we get from the forest, for example – that the Millennium Development Goal 7 is almost the mother of all other development goals, because if you do not take care of the environment, If you do not take care of the forest, for example, you will not get rainfall, and therefore you cannot grow food, and therefore you will not have a healthy population. If you don’t protect the forest and the rivers dry up, you don’t know to get to water, therefore people will get dirty water and will not be healthy. And also, if you do not take care of the environment and your agriculture fails because the rainfall pattern changes or you don’t have enough water for the irrigation, then of course you are going to be without food and maybe without money and so probably in a crisis. 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 services to reduce the gender gap. To me the Millennium Development Goal is so important that if you don’t take care of it, you’re not going to achieve the other Millennium Goals. In fact, in the other countries of the world, especially south of the Sahara, where many governments have been paying big service to the MGD number 7, the other MGDs are not being addressed. You have to commit to MGD number 7 so that you can pay attention to the other MGDs.

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

Well, 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, among college students. There is so much greater awareness with respect to the environment. The need for us to breathe fresh air; the need for us to have clean fresh water in our taps, in our rivers, in our springs, in our wells; the need to eat healthy food and unpolluted food and food that has not been transported miles from where it was produced. This awareness is surprisingly very prevalent among the young people. 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 indirectly we are taking care of ourselves. And that the environment is not for us to instruct, it is for us to steward. And I am very encouraged by what I see, especially among the young people, but I want to encourage them because it’s one thing to be enthusiastic and energetic when you are young and you are in school. If you lose that so that by the time you are a lawmaker or a teacher or any other important person in the country you have forgotten about the environment, sometimes the policies that are being passed are completely against what you believed as a young person, then I think it will have been a waste. But if you maintain the enthusiasm, that courage and practice that even through their adulthood whenever they will be serving the community, that will be wonderful and definitely they will be making this planet better than even we are handing over to them.

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 highly developed countries like the USA and Europe and China, so much of our decisions are guided by short-term days and short-term numeration of a few individuals, and secondly our unwillingness especially in highly developed societies to change our way of life and we tend to feel like we need to continue our way of life. And yet we all know it's not possible for all 6 billion people to live the same kind of life or to use the same level of resources and be able to have a sustainable planet. So 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. And as long as we don’t change, we think that’s the way to go. And we need to understand that we can’t all go like that and we need to work together and live in a way that is more sustainable.

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