Wangari Maathai: "Nobody knows everything, you only learn by making mistakes"
Politiek, 09 Jun 2009 - Africaserver Magazine
Tree nursery in Tumutumu Hills, Kenya - Photo Ariel Poster

In the 1970s, biologist Dr. Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, a Kenyan environmental non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women's rights. In 2004 she became the first African woman, and the first environmentalist, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. Africaserver Magazine talked to her about the movement and its achievements, about recent developments in Kenya and about the need to protect the African forests.
Can you tell us something about your project, the Greenbelt Movement? It has been going on for quite a long time now.

It has been going on since 1977, so for a long time. At the start it was mainly focusing on environment and then as it moved down, human rights issues became very important, environmental issues became important, women issues became important, and eventually we became part of the pro-democracy movement in Kenya which eventually reintroduced a multiparty political system and displaced a dictatorial government that had been in power for 24 years. And although we have tended to recede, to go back, I think we are still moving in the right direction of trying to create a democratic and stable country.

How did the project come about?

In 1975 the UN was organizing a conference on women, I got caught up on that and the national council of women brought women of Kenya together to prepare for this conference. I was there because I was in the university and I wanted especially to express my concerns about the rights of women to get the same kind of service in the University of Nairobi as men colleagues. That was my issue. But when I came to this forum, where the women were meeting, I immediately got what the women from the countryside were talking about. This really made me focus on the environment because I became aware that what they were talking about was an environment that was no longer able to sustain them, and because I grew up in the same environment I became aware that something very serious was happening to this environment. So I said just to them we could plant trees and that's how it started.

The other aspect of my inspiration was that I was, for my work in the university, studying outside the laboratory, I was studying ticks. While collecting specimens in the field I recognized the whole issue of land degradation due to soil erosion. This was particularly clear during the rainy seasons when the soil would be carried away by the waters. I realised that something was happening. I saw deforestation, land degradation, clearing of land and replacing the bushes with monocultures whether it was tea or coffee or trees like the eucalyptus or the pines from the northern hemisphere. These were all activities that were represented as development to our people, I could see they were actually destroying the environment on which they depended.

From these understandings I started pursuing tree planting, initially just to address the basic issues the women were raising. The issues of: we need firewood, which is the main source of energy, we need clean drinking water, we need nutritious food, we need an income, we are poor. So, when I first started it was really a very benign development project. And then, in the course of moving, as I said earlier, I got blocked by lack of human rights. And this block created a complete new opportunity because it brought into focus the fact that we were not only dealing with this environmental degradation but the reason we were getting environmental degradation was partially because we as women were denied certain rights. So, that is how eventually the program combined governance and environmental issues.

One of the core issues in the project is that you involve the women themselves, it's not a top-down project, it's not an organization somewhere in Europe or in Washington that says you have to plant trees. The women themselves do the work and plant the trees.

Yes, this is a very unique aspect about the programme. It was a programme that was responding to the expressed needs of the people and instead of being given a solution, they were encouraged to work for a solution and the solution was to work with their hands. The only thing we needed were financial resources. First of all, you have to educate and that education comes with a package that costs. Then we wanted to make sure that when trees are planted, they are not abandoned, because that is usually what happens, that they would not be followed. We said to the women "If you follow the tree and make sure it's alive, even on your own land, we will give you a small token of appreciation". That was a financial token. As the women had expressed a need for income, we made this programme an income generating activity.
In the end, and as we speak, the programme has been able to provide the needs that the women talked about. They get an income, they have firewood, building materials, fodder, they have protected their soil, they have planted their fruits, they have fruit trees, so the initial vision of the women was accomplished. The other thing is, because you are working with the ordinary people and they are improving their skills and their understanding, you give them power. You are empowering them to feel that they can do things for themselves. Which is one of the things that is very much needed in Africa, encouraging people to do things for themselves, so that they can learn from their own mistakes. Nobody knows everything, you only learn by making mistakes. Every lesson you learn, that's a lesson nobody can take away from you. It empowers you, because now you know what ought to be done.

One of the biggest challenges though is that the environment sometimes is being destroyed by policies that are being made at the highest level, it's also very important to engage the top. Engaging the top has been very challenging because the top doesn't want to be bothered too much with what is happening at the bottom. Trying to find a way to breach this gap between the poor people in Africa and the rich who are governing has been a constant struggle. And that is where usually the human rights issues come in, because that's where the top doesn't want the bottom to know too much, doesn't want the bottom to open their mouth, doesn't want the bottom to challenge the top. And I also want to mention, because we are here, especially that we were very much supported by organizations that appreciated this work. Novib in this country was one of our major partners, especially in the eighties.

It started small, with small groups

It started very, very small, it started from my backyard. We believe in starting very small and then expanding. On the very first day, we planted seven trees, in Nairobi. As we speak, only two trees are still standing. In the meantime we have planted over forty million. The most important thing in this is not even the number, it is the involvement of the people, the number of people who have been mobilised and who have changed their attitude towards the environment and who have come to understand that you have to take care of your own environment and you have to empower yourselves to take care of yourselves because the leaders are not always worried about you, often they are only worried about themselves. If they can use you, and you allow them to, they are happy.

How many women in Kenya have been involved?

At one point we had a record of about a hundred thousand of women who had organised themselves into six thousand groups. We encourage that they work in groups, because of the multiplier effect.

Do you see long-term outcomes in an environmental sense?

I think that one of the long-term impacts of this program first and foremost is just the changing of the landscape and that in itself sometimes works better than any book. People can see the change and they know this change has been brought about by themselves. They have the skills now, they know where to go look for seeds, they know how to transplant, they know how to take care of the seedlings. The next very important thing is that acquisition of skills. I think that is very important, because that is what we normally lack, knowledge and skills and the belief that we can do it ourselves.

The other thing that is very important is the inspiration that it gives to other people within the country and in the region. So many people are inspired to do something. They feel that if you did something and you don't seem to have needed to much money or too much knowledge, they want to know what they can do. They want to do something similar in their community. That is very encouraging, to see the hundreds of people in different countries who want to do something. And even in the country, young people who feel that they want to live for something. The inspiration in itself is something with much more than monetary value. I don't know how many people I meet, even sometimes as I travel like this and I meet people in Europe who are maybe studying and who feel like when I'm finished, I want to go home and I want to do something. Whatever they come up with, it may not be tree planting and it may not be anything in the environment, but they have a drive, they feel they can do it. That sense of empowerment to me is worth everything.

If you look back at the places where you have been working, do you see that you have saved land, in the long term?

Yes. We have seen forests that we have been able to save, we have seen rivers that were disappearing and now are flowing again, we have seen rivers that were used to be ridden with silt during the rainy season and now they are clean because farmers are taking care of their land and they are not allowing soil erosion, so we have seen change.

In December 2007, you had elections, and after the elections, hell broke out in Kenya. Has this damaged your project?

Not really. People who followed our project and who understood what we were talking about, including Kenyans, should not have been surprised. People pretend that they were surprised by the outcome of the elections, but that is because they were not following very closely what had been happening to Kenya for many years. When you look at the film Taking Root or reading the book Unbowed, we speak very clearly of the fact that our whole work came about essentially around the need to protect resources and the need to ensure that the resources are managed. This is where we challenged the government because we said it was very important that the resources are managed in a responsible and in an accountable way, that resources are shared in an equitable way, that diversity is recognised and embraced and that if we don't do that, we are likely to end up in conflict. In 1991-1992, conflicts broke out. We were very much involved in trying to explain that the reason why people were fighting was first and foremost that they were being incited by politicians who were using them to acquire power. In this particular case, president Moi himself was involved in encouraging people to fight over land. He was actually using that, to create a threat amongst the communities who were supporting him and to create a threat against the communities that were not supporting him so he could tell the communities who were supporting him, which was mostly his community, and his allies "If I am not back in power, you will be in great trouble. These people will make sure you will suffer. It is in your interest that you put me back in power." That was his strategy. So they sat out to go and displace the communities that were considered foreign amongst his people in the Rift Valley. Then, in 1997, this was repeated.

In 2007 it was done as well. The only reason it was much more intensive, because, in my opinion, there had been such a big division in the country since 2003. One has to go back to know how did we get into the coalition we were in when we went into the 2002 elections. How did Kibaki get into power? And you realise he got into power because different forces came together and decided to support him rather than support Moi. So Moi lost and Kibaki won. Because Moi was no longer in power, he was not able to organise the tribal clashes that he normally used to organise. So he was overwhelmed. But in 2007, because division came into the government immediately after the elections of 2002, the people who were discontent with Kibaki's government were actually the ones who encouraged the tribal clashes. This time it was very intensive, unfortunately. I guess they rehearsed three times so they could now do it very thoroughly. For me, the only surprise was the fact that the state was unable to protect its citizens from each other. Citizens were almost left free to fight. One community was ready for war, the other community wasn't, and the community that was not ready was completely run over and the state failed to protect them. Why did the state fail? Because, unfortunately, the police was divided, the army was divided, the country was divided.

But, if anything, that whole scenario strengthens our work. It reinforces what we had been saying all the time: you have to have leadership that respects the rights of people. The right to land for example. If there would have been that respect, people would not have been displaced. The respect of diversity, because politicians play around with the tribes. The respect of equitable distribution, because if you listen to complaints, people will say they are discriminated against, they are not given the same rights as others. I must say that in a country where you have politicians who want to use diversity as a way to acquire power, it is very easy for any diversity to find itself marginalised by the other diversities. Because the politicians can pick on land, mostly they pick on land because that is the most visible asset that people can identify. We have a history with the British where land was very badly distributed. Simply, the thing you are dealing with in South Africa and in Zimbabwe is the same thing you are dealing with in Kenya. We have never been able to resolve that problem. So, in my opinion, our work was greatly reinforced. Those who want to study properly and who go deep will recognise we saw that coming, but the intensity and the inability from the state to protect were very surprising for me, but I understand it, because the country was divided. It was divided by politicians.

There is now something like a worldwide economic crisis. Does that affect your programme?

It affects our programme to the extent that we are still very dependent on organizations that support our work. We still are operating without financial support of the Kenyan government. So we are very dependent on friends and supporters. And as our friends and supporters get their resources from their government or from citizens they are more generous when the economy is doing well. I'm sure it will be much more difficult for us to fundraise.

You are also working in other countries in the region.

My main occupation outside of Kenya has been to try to raise awareness especially about the protection of forests and to raise awareness especially among the heads of states on the threat that Africa is facing from desertification. We now have this extra threat from global warming. In 2005, I was invited by governments around the Central African region to become goodwill ambassador of the Congo forest, to try to raise awareness on the fact that the Congo forest is the second largest forest in the world, only second to the Amazone. The third largest block of forest is in Southeast Asia. These three forest are considered the three major lungs of the planet. They are extremely important, especially now we are talking about climate change. We need these forests standing, we don't want them cut. Once they are destroyed, it will be that much more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As long as they are standing, not only are they trapping carbon, but they continue to sequester more carbon. They are our best friends in the face of the threat of climate change.

The other reason we need them, especially the Congo, is because in Africa this is the only major block of forest. To the North we have the Sahara desert. To the South West we have the Kalahari desert. Both deserts are encroaching. With the population of Africa and with the farming in Africa still largely peasant-like subsistence agriculture, slash and burn of bushes and vegetation, this is the kind of agriculture that is promoting desertification processes, and if Africa is not completely awake to it, she will find herself squeezed between the two deserts. She needs to protect these forests. Because she is poor, she has very little resources. She is allowing these forests to be exploited by international companies that are paying peanuts for the timber. The governments are at their mercy because as you know there are also a lot of conflicts in these regions because of people competing for resources. A combination of lack of education and knowledge amongst the people, of poverty, of competition over these resources and a precipitation of crises is making it very difficult for governments to manage these resources in a sustainable way. So my campaign is to seek other governments, especially whose companies are benefiting from these forests, to help the governments in Africa to protect the forests by giving them financial resources, knowledge and skills to manage these resources more sustainably. Not only for themselves and the region, but also for the planet.
Willem Kerkhoven
April this year (2009), Dr. Wangari Maathai visited the Netherlands as a guest of the Movies that Matter Festival. The festival is an initiative of the Dutch section of Amnesty International. It’s the successor of the Amnesty International Film Festival. The renewed festival is the festival of engaged cinema: an annual film and debate festival about human rights, human dignity and situations where these are at stake.

Wangari Maathai was invited for the screening of Taking Root, a documentary on her work and The Greenbelt Movement. Credits: USA 2008, directed by Alan Dater and Lisa Merton, 81 minutes. A DVD version of Taking Root is available for educational and environmental purposes. More information, also on ways to take action, at the Taking Root website. (Photographs for this article come from the website as well)

Unbowed is Wangari Maathai's autobiography. It is available in English and a number of other languages.

This interview took place during the festival.

September 2011 her family announced that Professor Wangari Maathai passed away at the Nairobi Hospital, after a prolonged and bravely borne struggle with cancer. From the statement at the Greenbelt Movement website: Professor Maathai's departure is untimely and a very great loss to all who knew her - as a mother, relative, co-worker, colleague, role model, and heroine; or who admired her determination to make the world a more peaceful, healthier, and better place.

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Sites bij dit artikel:
The Greenbelt Movement

Taking Root

Movies that Matter Festival

Movies that Matter Festival - Taking Root (In Dutch)

Movies that Matter Festival - Taking Root (In English),search:film

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