If the leaders of America’s environmental movement need a shot of adrenaline, they would do well to sit down with Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai is the now-legendary mother of the Green Belt Movement, responsible for mobilizing tens of thousands of women to plant a staggering 30 million trees across Kenya over the last three decades. Her grassroots environmental effort, which Maathai grew in the face of oppressive and violent dictatorships, helped bring about a regime change in her native Kenya.

Wangari Maathai.

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Born in 1940, Maathai was the first woman from East or Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. She got her undergraduate education at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kan., a graduate degree in biology at the University of Pittsburgh, and a Ph.D. in anatomy at the University of Nairobi. She has since received honorary doctoral degrees from Yale University and other institutions. In December 2002, Maathai was elected to the Kenyan parliament with an overwhelming 98 percent of the vote, and one month later was appointed assistant minister for environment and natural resources.

Grist‘s Amanda Griscom Little met with Maathai at her hotel room in New York City while the Nobel laureate was in town on a lecture tour. They chatted about Maathai’s belief that a healthy environment is the path to peace, her holistic vision for sustainable development, and her hopes and ambitions for the future of Africa and the world.

Tell us about the origins of the Green Belt Movement and why you decided to center your activism around tree planting.

We started in 1977 to mobilize ordinary women in communities to provide themselves with their basic needs for living, much of which are derived from trees — firewood for energy, building materials and fencing materials, drinking water, rich soil for planting, fodder for their animals. They learned how to separate the soil for crops and protect areas where their waters come from. Much of the drought in Africa is a result of deforestation, which leaches the soil of minerals and moisture.

In only 30 years your organization has grown 30 million trees. Can you talk about the explosive growth of your concept and how it has lifted up communities?

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On the very first day we planted seven trees, and I like to mention this because sometimes people get overwhelmed by 30 million. It is important to understand that this is a process, not something that happens in a bang.

Much more important than the trees themselves is the mobilization of rural populations in large numbers — populations that we normally think are helpless, are dependent, are not able to do things for themselves. They organized themselves and started to address the issues in their own communities to improve their quality of life. At its peak, we’ve had over 6,000 groups of women planting trees. In the process they educate themselves and address government issues. Eventually we became a pro-democracy movement.

How did you go from a tree-planting activity to a political movement?

When we started organizing ourselves into many groups, the government started to interfere. We had nearly a dictatorial government that believed in controlling, and they were afraid of why we were organizing. And that’s when we contacted the minister of environmental protections, because we realized that in order to protect the environment, we needed to organize and systematically educate ourselves — we needed to create a more democratic state.

I have read that you faced violent opposition from the police.

We are women [in this organization]. We did not have any guns and we were not going to use force, even when they used force to try to stop us. We realized that all we needed to do to empower ourselves was to understand that we are the ones who can change government, we are the ones who can decide what kind of leaders to put in place. And so we got rid of our fear, we refused to be victims of government intimidation, but instead participated in elections and succeeded in changing leadership.

Now you are the deputy minister for environment. Can you describe how you have shifted your focus from grassroots organizing to establishing a broader framework for sustainable development?

I have enjoyed the great transformation from a civil-society activist to a lawmaker. That is really wonderful because now I don’t have to complain to the government, now I’m part of that government, and I can build a new standard for protection.

Can you do as much for the cause from the inside as you did from the outside?

There is a certain constraint in government — you can’t get away with everything because there are other interests that must be taken care of. But I have tried to give myself freedom to disagree and am quite happy now to serve in the government where I can make real changes. I have complained enough, and that’s all you can do when you are outside.

Can you give some examples of some of the changes you’ve made?

For example, the government wanted to take out green spaces in the city and put up buildings in them; people wanted to privatize forests, or own parts of the public land, and there were no policies to stop this. We argued that it is our business to have open spaces and a clean and healthy environment, but the law said no, it’s none of your business — you have to own it to show you have an interest. We have changed that law to say yes, you can have an interest in protecting the commons.

In your Nobel Prize acceptance speech, you talked about the environment as a path to peace: “A degraded environment leads to a scramble for scarce resources and may culminate in poverty and even conflict.”

Yes, and I think this is a reality in the whole world, not only in Africa, but perhaps more so in Africa. We have not enjoyed peace or enjoyed good government or enjoyed good management of our natural resources, and therefore have had massive poverty and a lot of conflict.

The connection between peace and the environment can be explained using the [analogy of] the traditional African stool, which has three legs that support the base on which we sit. I believe these three legs are symbolic. One represents good management of our natural resources, equitable distribution of the same, and a sense of accountability. Another represents good government — a democratic state that respects humankind so that we can have dignity as human beings. The third represents peace. The base on which we sit is development. If you try to do the development where you have no legs, or where you have two legs or one leg, the base is out of balance. It is unsustainable.

In the United States, it seems our development is based on two of the legs: We have democracy and peace (on our own soil, anyway), but we don’t have a broad sense of accountability and equal distribution of resources. The desire to consume in America seems to outpace the sense of responsibility for our resource-intensive lifestyles.

I know there is a concern about the consumptive pattern in America, but I also know that there are people in America, large numbers, millions of people who really understand this concept and who have been trying to push for this concept and individually live this concept. There are corporations that try to live this concept. Unfortunately there are also those who don’t, and some of those who don’t are in power.

But I think you should stop being disempowered. You should focus on the large majority of Americans, for example, who understand, who have power to build a critical mass to shift the politics. That voice is inherently so strong, so practical, so right, and it will be heard.

True, but do you see it as contradictory that the environmental movement in Africa seems to have more resonance with its people than it does in the United States?

You need to keep perspective. For 30 years I worked putting one foot in front of the other and really didn’t think that anybody was listening to me; I felt like I had been talking to myself all my life. And then suddenly, the Norwegian Nobel Peace Committee tells me that “you’re the one that has really been looking at the right balance.” I want to encourage those of us who are looking at those issues that way to feel that indeed we are validated. We need to continue that message even more strongly, and even with greater conviction until we win. Because we are the ones who are on the right path.

What did you make of the criticism against you when you got nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize? People couldn’t see the connection between the environment and peace at a time when the biggest looming concern is terrorism, and yet arguably even terrorism has its roots in inequitable distribution of resources.

It’s a challenge for all of us to shift the way we think. By choosing to honor the Green Belt Movement, the Nobel Peace Committee has challenged us to understand that our whole existence is dependent on how we manage our environment. And that in order for us to be able to manage our environment properly, we have to have good government and we have to have peace. We cannot expect to have peace if these other elements are not in place. It’s a complex and holistic way of thought and doesn’t surprise me that it doesn’t immediately make sense to everyone.

What are some examples of places where we have seen environmental stress lead to conflict?

We recently saw the devastation in [the Philippines]* where they had these horrible floods attributed to deforestation upstream; many thousands of people died. A little farther back, remember what happened to Haiti because of that hurricane — a lot of those people were killed by floods that [were exacerbated by] environmental degradation. In Darfur and Kenya, we have seen fighting over grazing ground. Palestine and Israel have an ongoing struggle over water resources.

In your Nobel commentary you said, “We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own — indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty, and wonder. This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life.” Can you elaborate on this notion?

I’m a Christian and a Catholic at that. For me, it’s very important to understand that as human beings we are not supposed to be exploitive of other species as we are supposed to be custodians of other species. In my message, especially to ordinary Christians when I talk to them — I do talk a lot in churches — I like to remind people that if you read the book of Genesis, you will see that God created other species before he created humanity. He created humanity last. As God was creating, he was making it easier and easier for us to survive, until on Friday, when he created humanity. But if he had created us before, we would probably not have survived. The moral of the story is that it is the other species that were created before us, which we need to survive. Whereas they don’t need us.

On a personal level, what drew you to love and understand the environment?

When I was a young person, I grew up in a land that was green, a land that was very pure, a land that was clean. And I remember going to a small stream very close to our homestead to fetch water and bring it to my mother. We used to drink that water straight from the river. I had this fascination with what I saw in the river. Sometimes I would see literally thousands of what looked like glass beads. I would put my little fingers around them in the hope that I would pick them and put them around my neck. But every time I tried to pick them, they disappeared. I would be there literally for hours desperately trying to pick these beads, without success.

Weeks later I would come back, and there would be these thousands of little tadpoles. They are beautiful, pitch black, and in that water they would be energetically flying around and I would try to get them. You can’t hold them, they are wiggling and they are very slippery. They eventually disappeared and then the frogs came.

I never realized that the glass beads were jelly sacks of eggs or understood the three stages of frogs until I went to college and learned biology. Once I had all this knowledge about the miracle of science I came home from college to discover that the creek had dried up and my homeland was suffering much environmental damage.

What do you plan to do with the new prestige and profile you have gained in receiving the Nobel Prize? How will it affect your message and movement?

In Africa, I want to challenge government to practice good governance to make that three-legged African stool so we can help our people get out of poverty, get out of conflict, join the democratic space, and start the process of development on the right environmental path. We have tended to depend too much on aid, on being assisted and blaming other people for not assisting us. But I also challenge our leaders, and especially since I’m one of them, to create an environment which can make it possible for our friends to help us and to do more to help ourselves in Africa, make that stool, create that base, and make it wide for as many people as possible.

To learn more about Maathai’s work, visit the Plant Trees for Peace website.

*[Correction, 22 Feb 2005: This interview originally pinpointed Malaysia as a recent site of devastating flooding and unrest, but it was the Philippines, not Malaysia, that suffered serious floods late last year.]

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