Nobel Laureate Ties Environment and Peace
About 100 people without invitations were turned away from a lecture by 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai, who spoke at UC Irvine on March 20 in Humanities Instructional Building 100.
The room was filled past capacity, with people sitting in the aisles and standing in the back as Maathai, who is the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, spoke about her efforts to raise awareness of the interplay between human rights and environmental resource management in Kenya and around the world.
‘It is very, very important for us to challenge ourselves as a human family to see that we cannot thrive on this planet of limited resources if we do not manage our resources in a responsible way, in an accountable way, and if we do not share these resources more equitably,’ Maathai said near the beginning of her lecture. ‘I’d also like to encourage you to think of any conflict you know of, whether it is local or regional or global, that is not a conflict over resources. … Sooner or later, we do get in each other’s way.’
Much of Maathai’s lecture focused on her experiences promoting the Green Belt Movement, which she founded in Kenya in 1977. The movement empowers Kenyan women and combats deforestation at the same time by organizing women to plant trees.
When Maathai started the movement, she was not fully aware of the implications it had for peacebuilding.
‘Now, for me, when I started the Green Belt Movement … I wasn’t thinking that I am promoting peace, and I wasn’t thinking that I am promoting sustainable management of resources,’ Maathai said. ‘I started very casually by meeting women at the forum of the National Council of Women … and I was coming there representing Kenya’s Association of University Women, but among us were many women from the countryside, and their agenda was, ‘We need water, clean drinking water.’ … They were saying, ‘We need energy,’ which for them was mainly firewood. ‘We need good and adequate nutritious food and we need income.”
This was startling to Maathai, who had grown up in the region and had not noticed these things to be lacking.
‘I had already observed that when I was growing up, my countryside was green, there was plenty of free drinking water, there was plenty of wood logs, so there was a lot of energy in the form of firewood and we did not consider ourselves poor,’ Maathai said.
But while Maathai had traveled to the United States to study, rapid changes had taken place.
‘What had happened is that we had developed, we had clear-cut much of the wood logs, much of the hillsides, and we had replaced those wood logs with coffee and tea,’ Maathai said.
While these developments were hurting the environment, they were not helping the farmers who grew the coffee, either.
‘Coffee is called black gold, and people who grow coffee ought to be very rich, but my people, we are extremely poor and the reason was they picked the coffee and … passed it through a very long [chain] of men who processed the coffee and eventually sold it to coffee buyers like Starbucks,’ Maathai said. ‘And when they received the money, the money came along the same route, and at every station, people took what they considered was their due without consulting the farmer. And by the time the farmer got what was left, quite often it would be negative. And so the farmer was very poor, bare feet, didn’t have firewood. [Farmers were] not allowed to intercrop with food crops, so they needed money to go and buy food. If they are not being paid because of this corruption, then the farmer is not able to buy himself food.’
Deforestation even had unforeseen effects in the areas of water and energy.
‘[As a result of] removing a lot of the vegetation, when the rains came, a lot of the water ran off downhill, carrying with it much of the topsoil, so during the rains, the waters would be brown with silt,’ Maathai said. ‘And this silt ended up in some of the hydroelectric dams that we had constructed down the stream, so the minister for energy was not able to produce as much energy as he could because his turbines aren’t turning because there is too much silt in the water. And as a result, he cannot produce enough energy to give to the rural people so that they stop using firewood. So I saw the vicious cycle we were putting ourselves in as we developed.’
Maathai reacted the best way she knew how: by planting trees.
‘The reaction that I had was through the National Council of Women, we planted trees,’ Maathai said. ‘And I think it was just one of those things that you do. You don’t know how you do them, but sometimes we just keep planting. … [The choice to plant trees was] partially because I was a biologist, partially because they were farmers, and also I thought that the trees would be something that would address some of the problems that they were talking about.’
Maathai also tried to spread knowledge to the Kenyan people about how their environmental problems were created.
‘We do it by going into the community, first and foremost, and asking the community, ‘What are your problems?” Maathai said. ‘Usually the community will reply to us and say, ‘Come, we want to participate in the Green Belt Movement.’ We will go in and we will ask them, ‘What are your problems?’ … And then we say, ‘Now, where do you think these problems come from?’ And of course, in a nutshell, everybody blames everybody else. Never themselves. And it was important for people to understand that some of the problems that they have are of their own making. … They allow this kind of development to go on. Eventually, they will suffer.’
Maathai then tries to empower people with the knowledge that they can change their own situation.
‘We try to make communities see the linkage between what was happening to their environment and the problems they face,’ Maathai said. ‘So in the third step, we say, ‘What do you think you