Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai talks about her work started in the late seventies encouraging African women to plant trees as a way to enrich their lives and help the environment. One of Kenya’s leading political dissidents, Maathai has overseen the planting of 30 million trees and has been a leading proponent of environmental change in Kenya.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. In 1977, Wangari Maathai was watching the soil blow away on the deforested earth of her native country, Kenya. So, she planted a small nursery of trees in her backyard, and then convinced other African women to do the same. Now, 30 million trees later, this founder of the Greenbelt movement has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – the first environmentalist, and first African woman, to be so recognized. Wangari Maathai, welcome to Living on Earth.
MAATHAI: Thank you very much.
CURWOOD: You’re now Deputy Minister of the Environment, and also member of Kenya’s Parliament, but you weren’t always a political insider. In fact, as one of Kenya’s leading political dissidents, you’ve been what – harassed by the government, arrested, beaten unconscious – things that would make someone else give up. But you didn’t.
I’m going to read something that you once wrote: “Courage, I guess the nearest it means is not having fear. Fear is the biggest enemy you have.” Why did you write that?
(Photo courtesy of The Goldman Foundation)
MAATHAI: I said that because sometimes people tell me that I’m very brave, and they ask me why I was not afraid, why I did what I was doing—sometimes doing things that were quite dangerous to my life. And the best way I can explain is that I did not project fear. And I think that quite often we feel when we project the consequences of our actions, then of course we can fear. If you project that you might die, you might lose the privileges of the position that you hold, you might be fired—for example, those of us who hold positions in the government—then you fear, because you are processing the consequences.
But if you are focused on what you want to attain, if you are focused on the goal, then you actually go right in there where many people would not dare. It’s like you almost become like the devil; you dare where angels dare not, because you are not projecting that. At least that’s the way I see myself, because it’s not that I am brave, or that I see the consequences and I stand there and say “shoot me,” as if I think that if the soldier shoots me the bullet is not going to go through my heart. But by not projecting, then I do not embrace that fear that then so often stops us from pursuing our goals.
CURWOOD: You were the first woman in East Africa to receive a doctorate degree; you have one in Biology. Tell me how you managed that.
MAATHAI: Well I think that I was very lucky. I had parents who appreciated education, so they sent me to school at a time when girls were not expected to go to school. And I did very well in school and was encouraged by my teachers and my parents, and especially my eldest brother. In 1960 I want to say that I was very lucky. I had just finished high school, and it was a time when this country was going through anticipated changes for independence. But it was also the time that Kennedy was planning to become the president of the United States. So between the politicians on both sides of the ocean, they organized a lift of some 300 Kenyan students to go to America. And I just happened to be there, and found myself in Kansas.
CURWOOD: Can you explain your tree planting project and how you got started? Where did the idea come from?
MAATHAI: Because I had joined the National Council of Women of Kenya. And in that forum, women would talk about the problems that they faced. And it was during that time that I kept hearing women say that they needed firewood, that children were suffering from malnutrition. They were also complaining about that they needed clean drinking water. And these were issues that I did not know as a child, because I lived in the same environment, and it was very endowed. And the more I listened to the women, and the more I observed their environment, the more I realized that what was happening was that the environment was becoming degraded.
And so I responded. I responded by asking women to do something. I said, let us plant trees, because I thought if we planted trees we would protect the soils, we will give women firewood; if they plant fruit trees they would improve their diet. And I do believe that I am not persuaded by the symptoms of problems. I like to ask myself where does that come from, so that I can get to the root.
CURWOOD: Tell me what day-to-day life is like for a woman who is working in one of your tree planting programs, and what would motivate her to participate in the effort?
MAATHAI: An ordinary woman in the rural areas who would hear the message that she should plant trees will first be motivated by the fact that, especially if she lives in the highlands, she needs firewood. If she lives in very highly populated areas, she needs fencing material. As you know, many of our rural populations still build their houses within short periods – say ten years – you have to build another house, because these are not permanent houses. They’re mud houses, and the wood is degraded very quickly. So these are very good reasons to build…to plant trees. Also we need shade because of the sun; we need to break the wind. So, for an ordinary woman in the rural areas there are many good reasons to plant trees.
But we also injected into the campaign something that motivated them, and that was for every seedling that these women developed, if they planted it on their own farms, or if they gave it to their neighbors and the neighbor planted, it was important for that tree to survive. And that was the key to the success of the campaign: that those who planted were also charged with the responsibility of making sure that they survived. And if they survived, then the Greenbelt movement would compensate them with very little money, but for poor people it was good money in their hands, and they could do something like pay school fees, buy food, buy clothes. So it was a good income, a welcome incentive, and it actually made the difference. Because otherwise you can do a lot of planting, but if you don’t have a follow-up mechanism, all those trees die in time.
CURWOOD: By the way, just exactly how much, if I were a village woman, how much would I get for taking care of a tree?
MAATHAI: You’d get about four U.S. cents for every tree that survives. And that sounds like a very small amount of money, but if you multiply that several thousand times you get yourself a few dollars that you can use. And remember, the trees are also planted on their farms, so in another ten, 20 years they can now harvest. And the good thing about the tree, which became the symbol of our campaign, is that the symbol is something that starts from a small seed and then it grows, it becomes a big tree. It becomes an ecosystem itself. It becomes a home for birds, for small animals, for insects. So really, as the tree grows it changes you. It changes and it changes you along. And you form kind of a friendship with it, and you take care of it, it also eventually gives you wood, if it is a fruit tree it gives you fruit. So you develop a relationship that is very sustainable because, you know, you depend on each other, you become symbiotic friends.
CURWOOD: You’ve said that ordinary women have changed the minds of intractable governments. How have you seen that happen?
MAATHAI: Well, one thing that we discovered from the very beginning is that a lot of people did not make the connection between the problems that they were experiencing and environmental degradation. And we needed to give them what we called environmental education, so that they could make those linkages and address the causes of environmental degradation rather than be overwhelmed by the symptoms. But in the course of doing that we had to organize women. We had to bring them together in groups. They had to register so that we knew where they were. They had to meet at certain times in the course of the week.
Now this, the government did not want. And this is because we were, at that time, in a very oppressive dictatorial government that did not want ordinary people, especially in the rural areas, to be organized. So it became necessary for us to introduce in our education civic education, so that people could understand how we are governed, why we are governed, the way we are governed, and how the government and leaders play a role either in the protection or in the destruction of the environment. So that they could see, for example, that if you have a very dictatorial, irresponsible government – that government can privatize your forests, it can privatize your open green spaces, it can destroy your environment. It can misappropriate the tax money that people pay, and it can ignore the responsibilities that it is supposed to have.
So we introduced a very strong component called “civic and environmental education.” And eventually it was that that created a pro-democracy movement within the Greenbelt movement so that people did not only see the need to plant trees, but also the need to change the government and to hold the government accountable for the way it managed their natural resources.
CURWOOD: Any advice for women around the world? I mean, here in the United States, as in many places, there are still barriers. We’ve yet to see a woman as president, for example, here, or in a number of positions. We don’t have an Equal Rights Amendment that some people feel would be important for women. Out of your experience, any advice for women around the world?
MAATHAI: Well, what I would like to tell the women around the world, for me to get the prize, it’s a symbol for all of us women all over the world. Our work, our persistence, our commitment, our struggles. Our low positions have been elevated, and today we can walk tall and know that we can represent the best. And I want to say, indeed, that I know that as the Nobel committee was making this decision – which is a landmark decision because, as you know, it is the first time that the Nobel committee decided to award the prize to an area that is not directly connected with a conflict, or resolving conflict. This is an area for environmental democracy, and it was linked to peace.
And what the committee was thinking is that here is an approach to development that is preempting potential conflict. And for me, as I try to understand what the committee was doing, I thought, yes. Here in Africa we cook on three stones still in most of our rural areas, and we know that you cannot cook on two stones. So democracy and good management of the environment are two stones, and the third is peace. The three are inseparable.
CURWOOD: I want you to look ahead now and tell me, what do you see as the future for the lives of people in Africa? To what extent do you see things improving over this next century, or perhaps not? And can you give me your biggest reasons for the trends that you see?
MAATHAI: Those of us who live on this continent have of course gone through the process of colonialism. And the process of colonialism often is very destructive because it encourages you to doubt yourself, it encourages you to forget who you are so that you are – colonialism gives you a new image of yourself. And when you begin to understand what that process has done to you, and has done to your fellow countrymen, then you realize that you are trapped, you are not free. But you need to rehabilitate yourself, but you need to accept who you are.
One of the best things that has happened with this prize is the fact that I also see that the Nobel committee sent us in Africa – as Kenyans, as Africans, as women in Africa – a message: that the solution to our problems lies within us, that we can come up with the solutions. Because what we have been doing here is not something that was imported from abroad; this is something that we generated right here within our own limitations. And we are being encouraged to promote better management of our enormous resources.
But we are being told that if we can manage them properly, if we can manage them within the environment of a democratic governance, that we have leaders who govern the countries and govern their people for the people, not for themselves, not to enrich themselves. And if we avoided conflict that are based on our short-term gains for individual people within the communities; that if we did that, if we took these three pillars and whirled them together, that we can actually find peace and development and happiness in this region. Which for many years, as you know, has not found happiness, has not found peace and has not found good governance.
CURWOOD: Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year for her work in sustainable development, democracy and peace. Thank you so much for taking this time with me today.
MAATHAI: Thank you very much, it was my pleasure.
[MUSIC: Angelique Kidjo “Batonga” PUTOMAYO PRESENTS THE BEST OF WORLD MUSIC: AFRICAN (Rhino – 1993)]
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.