Wangari Maathai: fighting for Kenya's environment

| 1st March 2005
Wangari Maathai’s Nobel prize-winning activism has thrust the environment to the forefront of the global security agenda
‘If believing that God is on Mount Kenya is what helps people conserve their mountain then that is fine with me'

She’s been called many things. Among the rural poor of Kenya she’s known as the Green Crusader or Green Militant. Former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi called her ‘a mad woman’, and declared her a serious threat to the stability of the country. Her husband said she was ‘too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control’. And now professor Wangari Maathai has been named as a Nobel laureate.

It’s an astounding achievement: the first African woman, and only 12th female, to win the Nobel peace prize; she takes her place beside Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa. Even more importantly, she’s the only environmentalist ever to have received the prize. In one graceful leap she has thrust the environment into the forefront of global security issues.

When I meet her in her room at the Intercontinental Hotel in London, she is fresh from picking up her prize in Oslo, and gives the impression of being someone who’s long been waiting for the world to catch up with her. ‘Of course peace and the environment are connected,’ she shrugs. ‘Look at the wars we fight: they are almost always over resources: land, oil, water, grazing ground, fishing rights.’

Maathai won the peace prize because of her work planting trees and encouraging women throughout Africa to do the same. At the last count her Green Belt Movement is responsible for planting 30 million trees in Kenya alone. Besides stemming profligate deforestation, soil erosion and climate change, the movement promoted women’s rights and empowered impoverished communities before joining the pro-democracy movement that eventually dismissed the corrupt, land-grabbing government of Moi. He was right: she was a serious threat.

At 64, statuesque and elegant in colourful African robes, Maathai carries herself like an elder stateswoman. She’s now a member of parliament (voted in with a 98 per cent share of the vote in 2002), and serves as Kenya’s deputy minister for the environment, natural resources and wildlife. And she’s relishing the international platform the Nobel prize has given her. She’s been giving interviews back-to-back since eight this morning, and steps from her final Japanese TV crew straight into a waiting cab for the airport.

But whenever she smiles, which is often, her face becomes instantly mischievous. And then you are reminded that for half of her 64 years she’s been a rebel activist, fighting with those on the wrong side of the fence, a sharp thorn in the side of the establishment.

‘I never saw myself as an activist,’ she grins. ‘When this all began I was a very decent professor at the University of Nairobi. I was a good girl. But once I started I realised activism was a necessity. As we moved further and deeper into it we kept finding doors closed, so we had to force those doors open.’

For years the Green Belt Movement was hardly noticed by the government, because, as Maathai points out, ‘only women’ were involved. So by the time the government machinery moved against Maathai she already had widespread grass-roots support. People understood that she was on the side of the poor and refused to believe the defamation pedalled via government stooges.

Nonetheless, her activism landed her in jail numerous times, hastened the end of her marriage, sent her into exile in Tanzania for six months, and, in 1999, resulted in her being knocked unconscious while planting trees in Nairobi’s Karura Public Forest. ‘I never imagined the police would hurt us,’ she says of the Karura Public Forest incident. ‘I thought they were there to protect us because the crowd was so large, but then they charged.’

She insisted on signing her police report in blood from her head wound. Her gestures have often been flamboyant, in-your-face protests unthinkable for most women in Kenya’s traditional, patriarchal society. She broke taboos, risking ostracism and derision in the process. In 1992 she persuaded other women to strip naked in downtown Nairobi. She said that in taking off their clothes, the women ‘resorted to something they knew traditionally would act on the men… They stripped to show their nakedness to their sons. It is a curse to see your mother naked’.

When asked about Moi’s claims that she’s mad, she thinks for a moment before saying, ‘He’s probably right. You have to be mad to break from the mainstream. When everybody thinks that this is the path to take and you get an inspiration that tells you that it will lead to destruction and you dare get up and tell everybody that the king is wrong: that is madness.’

Her inspiration for such madness lies in the land surrounding her childhood home near the central Kenyan town of Nyeri: rich, fertile land where she worked with her mother in the fields planting and harvesting and fetching water from the crystal streams that flow from the slopes of neighbouring Mount Kenya. ‘I specifically remember discovering tadpoles in one of those streams, and how fascinated I was by these tiny creatures,’ she recalls. ‘Many years later when I went back, the clean rivers had been filled with red silt and the tadpoles were no longer there. My own child could not play with them as I had.’

In the last 150 years Kenya has lost nearly 90 per cent of its natural woodland. Clearances began when British colonialists replaced forests with cash crops, mainly tea and coffee, and continued post-independence as political favours were bought with land bribes: hectares of pristine woodland were promptly cut down.

By the early 1970s, when Maathai joined the National Council of Women of Kenya, rural women, many of them from Nyeri, complained bitterly about the lack of clean water, the miles they had to walk to find firewood, and the fact that the rains seemed to fail more often. Maathai’s genius lay in her realisation that their problems were linked to the dramatic changes she had witnessed in her childhood landscape and in then doing something practical about it.

‘They told me what they needed: firewood, food, water, building materials; and I realised that these needs were not being met because deforestation was leading to soil loss, to springs drying up, rain patterns changing that meant farmers were not able to produce enough food to last until the next season. I realised something had to be done.’

So in 1977 she planted seven seedlings in her back yard and a movement was born.

‘Initially, it was simply about women helping themselves: give yourself firewood, give yourself fruits, give yourself fodder and protect your soil.’ Maathai cups her hands in front of her as she describes teaching the women to ‘hold onto the blessings of rain’, to not ‘let one drop leave [their] own land’. It was only later on that her campaign came to be about the common good.

In this way the Green Belt Movement has brought the Kenyan people full circle. Maathai points out that before colonisation ordinary Kenyans had a profound cultural relationship with the land, and she blames Christianisation as the beginning of an attitude that has led to the ‘commercialisation of nature’.

‘In my grandparent’s time,’ she says, ‘people believed that Mount Kenya was a holy mountain; they had a reverential attitude to the rivers, the mountains, the trees. Then the missionaries came along and said, ‘God doesn’t live in the mountains; He lives in heaven’.”

The whole process, she says, dramatically altered people’s perception. It allowed people to view ‘nature as a commodity: something to be exploited, sold for dollars, something that was up for grabs instead of a community resource that needs to be nurtured for future generations’.

‘If believing that God is on Mount Kenya is what helps people conserve their mountain,’ she says, ‘then that is fine with me.’ So Maathai has been actively working with local churches to encourage a revival of a spiritual connection with nature. ‘They are beginning to understand that they should have been at the forefront of protecting the environment as custodians of God’s creation, and have been very supportive.’

Maathai is a rare species in Africa: a woman who is educated, independent and unafraid of putting her head above the parapet. And in contrast to those who make up Africa’s male political elite, her rural childhood has made her comfortable in connecting with the poor and illiterate of her country. They speak a language she learnt before her degrees in America and Germany enabled her to talk on their behalf. ‘Listening to them I was struck by my privilege,’ she says. ‘I was living a good life, with water coming from a tap, and in front of me were sisters who had to walk for miles for the same privilege.

‘I thank my mother every day for insisting that I be educated. And I also thank the nuns of the school where I was taught, for instilling in me the notion of service to the community.’

She is deeply critical of the international community’s apathy towards Africa, inequitable trade tariffs, the Third World’s huge burden of debt. And she is suspicious about Tony Blair’s much trumpeted Commission for Africa. But she also puts the onus of responsibility on Africans themselves. She urges ordinary Africans to insist on good governance in their own countries, so that African leaders raise their political consciences, and the tide turns on the endemic corruption that Western governments use as an excuse for not eliminating debt or lowering tariffs. ‘Until we put our own house in order,’ she says, ‘the international system will continue giving excuses.’

Thanks in large part to Maathai, Kenya’s fortunes have turned a corner. The fragile coalition headed by Mwai Kibaki, which ousted Moi in 2002, continues to fight corruption and poverty. And Maathai is enjoying being on the ‘right side of the fence’ for a change.

‘Many people prefer me on the other side of the fence,’ she laughs. ‘They were [so] used to me there making noise and creating hell for the government that they cannot accept me sitting here doing nothing in the form of agitation, but this is a government of our own making so it is right to support it.’

Meanwhile, the Green Belt Movement continues to broaden its remit. It also now encourages organic farming and the growing of indigenous plants to supplement the diets of rural people, and is working with women to educate about HIV/AIDS.

But more than anything the movement has taught thousands of individuals in hundreds of communities that they can change their lives by tending to their environment; that their own empowerment lies in the land beneath their feet.

At the Johannesburg Earth Summit in 2002 Britain’s then international development secretary Clare Short suggested that environmentalism was a comfortable, middle-class concern that in terms of priorities should really come a far second to poverty alleviation. In direct contradiction to Short’s remarks, Maathai asserts that poverty and environmental degradation are locked in a vicious cycle that can only be broken when the environment is attended to.

‘Poverty leads directly to environmental degradation, because poor people do not think of the future and will cut down the last tree if necessary. But environmental degradation will also lead to poverty, because when you have no soil you have no grasses, no trees and no water: you cannot really help yourself.

‘If believing that God is on Mount Kenya is what helps people conserve their mountain then that is fine with me'

‘I used to say to the women, If we say we are too poor to take care of the environment then it will only get worse. We have to turn it around and push the poverty back. Planting trees breaks the cycle: when we can give ourselves food, firewood, and help to nurture soil for planting and clean water, then we begin to roll poverty back.’

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund may insist that international trade is the exclusive route to prosperity, but Maathai has proven that it’s self-sufficiency on a micro level that is more efficient and sustainable.

I suspect that her Nobel laureate status won’t change Maathai much. She’s already threatened to step down from her government post because her fellow ministers nearly allowed more illegal deforestation near Nairobi. At home she has become an icon of truth and democracy by kicking up merry hell. The only difference is that now her voice can be raised on an international platform, and one hopes that she will be heard by world leaders, development agencies, the World Bank… everyone, in fact, who is looking for solutions to global warming, poverty, problems to do with development, and conflict.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2005

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