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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Out Of Africa

Air Date: Week of

One of the activists who came to the Earth Summit 2 conference was Wangari Maathai, the founder of Kenya's Greenbelt Movement. She has both received awards and prizes for her work, as well as being jailed and beaten in her own country. In New York, she addressed the general assembly, chaired special sessions, and led a daily round of singing and dancing.


CURWOOD: One of the many activists who came to New York to press world leaders to step up environmental protection was Wangari Maathai. The founder of Kenya's Greenbelt Movement 20 years ago, Professor Maathai can claim credit for millions of trees planted by tens of thousands of farmers in her country. She's received many honors, including Sweden's Right Livelihood Award, and Africa's Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger. Yet for her efforts, she has also been jailed and beaten in her own country. In New York, she chaired sessions of the Women's Forum, addressed the General Assembly, and led a daily round of singing and dance.

(Singing and dancing)

MAATHAI: Harambe is a Ki-Swahili word for "let us pull together," and it is used in Kenya as a slogan to appeal to members of the public to join together in communities to help each other and to promote development by themselves, without waiting too much for the government or for outside help.

(Singing and dancing continue)

MAATHAI: Delegates, governments, lets work together. Let's stick together. Let's create genuine partnerships. Because that's what is at stake here at the earth summit. The poor do a lot of damage and they over-mine the environment to try to sustain their lives. And the rich and those who live a lifestyle where they over-consume the world's resources are also doing a lot of damage. So both ends of the spectrum need to come together and develop a partnership.

CURWOOD: Now, you were at Rio in 1992.


CURWOOD: How do you feel about being here at this meeting, in comparison to going to Rio? Do you feel hope, or do you feel a lot of concern?

MAATHAI: I always go to conferences with hope, and I know that it is very, very important to sustain hope. Even though governments disappoint us because they refuse to cooperate. And I do understand that this world is always divided between the rich and the poor, between the weak and the powerful. Now my concern, at my age, and at the rate at which the environment is being degenerated, is whether this is a destiny that humankind has to live with. Is it so, that we as human beings cannot truly cooperate to save the planet? Are we always going to have this polarized politics, which try to ensure that certain communities, certain regions continue to benefit from the resources of the world at the expense of the others? That it is okay for some people to overuse the resources of the world at the expense of others? Because when I listen to the negotiations between governments, this seems to be the case in every conference of the United Nations.

CURWOOD: Who are these people? The rich nations? The rich corporations? Who are you talking about?

MAATHAI: I'm talking about, yes, the rich nations, the transnational corporations. The powerful, the militarily powerful. Who of course can twist the arms of the weaker nations at every opportunity. And I guess I'm more concerned because I come from an economically weak region, a politically weak region, a technologically weak region, and a region, therefore, that continues to be exploited and marginalized. Not because people don't understand, but because they find themselves at a position where they can take advantage. As if, by taking advantage of that part of the Earth, their part of the Earth is safe.

CURWOOD: The United States Senate has circulated a resolution saying that in terms of combating global warming, that there has to be an agreement that developing nations are signed onto before they'll ratify a treaty that would bind the United States and the developed nations. How do you feel when you hear that?

MAATHAI: Well, I think here I would agree with the developing countries. What the developing countries are saying is that they cannot be held equally responsible with the developed countries. And I think that developed countries have to agree with that. Because a lot of the damage to the climate is being done by the developed countries, and certainly the United States is in the lead because of its gigantic economic power and the consumption and the production that goes on in this country. So I think that in a way, what the developed countries are saying is that we want to help you, but only so far as to keep you at a certain level of development. And the developing countries are saying, well, you owe it not only to us because of history, but also to the level at which you consume and the level at which you produce, to bear the greater responsibility. And that's where the bone of contention is.

CURWOOD: Do you think that the world governments and people have the will to stop the slide toward environmental destruction?

MAATHAI: There are always governments who believe in being able to be ahead of everybody else. In being able to be ahead not only economically but also militarily. And only feeling secure and considering the world secure when they themselves are militarily and economically prepared to defend themselves. I don't know whether it's a dichotomy that is the creation of humankind, or a dichotomy that is part of the nature of humankind. If it is part of the nature of humankind, well maybe we cannot get rid of it. If it is a creation of our mind, then we can get rid of it. But those of us who believe that this dichotomy can end, then we need to do much more than we are doing at the moment.

CURWOOD: Thank you very much, Wangari Maathai.



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