Profile: Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai

Posted: 21 October 2004

Author: Katy Salmon

The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize was this month awarded to Professor Wangari Maathai, for "her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace." Here we republish a profile of the founder of the Green Belt Movement which has planted more than 30 million trees across Africa. This first appeared in the millennium issue of People & the Planet magazine soon after the first anniversary of her successful battle to save Karura Forest,­ a vital lung for Kenya's ever-expanding capital. Dr Maathai now serves as assistant minister of environment, natural resource and wildlife in the Kenyan government of President Kibaki.

"You should not be disempowered by the problems you see, you must be empowered by hope. Despite all the problems we go through, I have hope for the new millennium.

Wangari Maathai"We will go with a lot of baggage from the 20th century but there is hope and tomorrow seems like it is possible." Sitting in her 'office', the leafy garden of the Green Belt Movement (GBM), Wangari Maathai points to the trees above her head: "I use trees as a sign of hope. They are alive. They keep going, don't give up. There is hope in the environmental movement. You can do something positive for change, set out to work, plant trees, dig trenches ­ not just complain."

Professor Maathai, a fearless and outspoken environmental campaigner, has been clobbered by baton-wielding riot police, threatened with female circumcision and told she has no moral grounds to speak because she is a divorcee. And all she wants to do is plant trees.

Land-grabbers

Her high-profile campaign to save Karura Forest -­ a vital lung for Kenya's ever-expanding capital -­ from 'landgrabbing' has brought her into head-on confrontation with the government. In deals that have shocked the nation, this public land has been allocated to private developers, eager to line their own pockets by looting the nation's heritage. Government files listing the names of companies allocated plots in Karura have mysteriously disappeared. In January 1999, Nairobi erupted into three days of riots after thousands of protesters, who marched to Karura to plant trees, were beaten and tear-gassed by riot police and General Service Unit personnel. Pictures of blood-soaked students were beamed around the world, leading international figures, such as United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, to speak out in Maathai's defence.

"With a leadership that is so corrupt, it is difficult to protect the environment," says Maathai. "People tend to think forests are government property and the government takes advantage of their ignorance. We emphasise they are public goods for the common good, for now and for the future.

"By howling and yelling, we've really raised it to the national level. People have started understanding forests don't belong to governments. Local people ­ architects, bankers, lawyers ­ don't want to be involved in the destruction of Karura. By making noise, you make the land useless."

This is not the first time Maathai has taken on the government. In 1989, she shamed international investors, including Robert Maxwell, into pulling out from building a 60-storey office block on Uhuru Park, the only green area in Nairobi's congested city centre. Maathai's ability to mobilise international support was crucial to her success: "We told our colleagues internationally: 'Check if your government is involved. Why would you want to destroy a small park in Nairobi when no one would touch Central Park?'"

Tree nurseries

Her efforts to save the park unleashed a barrage of personal insults, focusing on the failure of her marriage. One MP said he would circumcise her if she set foot in his district. Government ministers dismissed her as "bogus" and "a tribalist". Maathai says she is unfazed by such abuse, although she admits: "Of course, they don't do your psyche any good. If you attack a woman by attacking her womanhood, she'll feel embarrassed and violated. You're human, you don't want to be humiliated. They hope you will be so hurt you will not raise your voice again. The real objective is to stop you talking. 'Are you going to give in or what?' And for me, never." Instead, she plays them at their own game: "Last time, I told another MP: 'I'm sick and tired of men who are so incompetent that every time they feel the heat because women are challenging them, they have to check their genitalia to reassure themselves. I'm not interested in that part of the anatomy. The issues I'm dealing with require the utilisation of what's above the neck. If you don't have anything there, leave me alone.' He didn't say another word." Maathai makes a formidable opponent. She first hit the headlines in 1971 as the first woman in East and Central Africa to get a PhD, later becoming the first female associate professor at the University of Nairobi and chair of the National Council of Women of Kenya. Her GBM, founded in 1977, has started over 3,000 tree nurseries, produced 20 million trees and involved 50,000 women.planting tree seedlings

In recognition of her achievements, Maathai was presented with the Woman of the World award by Princess Diana. She also sits on the UN Disarmament Advisory Board. Before becoming involved in the fight against land-grabbing, the GBM devoted its energies to planting trees. "As a biologist, I saw a lot of environmental degradation and soil erosion and I met poor women needing firewood and fencing materials," explains Maathai. So she set about training women to establish their own tree nurseries: "We make them independent people who can take care of their environment by themselves."

The project has been phenomenally successful: "In these 20 years we have created a great green consciousness and raised awareness," she says. "In rural areas women are very proud to show us their work. They feel empowered and appreciate the physical change of environment. They talk about the returning of birds and hares. There has been a profound transformation in how they look at the environment. They have made planting trees a culture. I call them foresters without diplomas." Her vision is now spreading across the continent via the PanAfrique Greenbelt Project, sponsored by Comic Relief, which brings together environmentalists from all over Africa so that they can learn from one another.

Fighting ignorance

Maathai is also African Co-President of Jubilee 2000, campaigning for the cancellation of Third World debt. She hopes to collect a million signatures to present to the G7. "The main thing is not the signatures. What is important is to educate our people as to how these debts came about and connect it with good governance," she says. She is an ardent supporter of the "pro-democracy movement" whose campaign for a new constitution, primarily to reduce the President's overwhelming powers, continues to spark passionate debate.

The importance of civic education is one of her favourite themes: "I have been trying to fight ignorance. People become very vulnerable when they do not receive information. They are marginalised by their own government. Because of ignorance and poverty, they do things that are against their own interests. Politicians can buy poor voters."

The 59-year-old grandmother shows no signs of fatigue: "I have invested 20 years of my life in this campaign for the environment and I'm still only scratching the surface." On 7 October 1999, she celebrated the first anniversary of the battle to save Karura: "I am confident of winning. The government is determined. So are we. They are hoping we shall tire but we are not going to tire. It doesn't matter how long it takes. Nobody will build anything there as long as we live. We cannot dignify theft."

Katy Salmon is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi.