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Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai Dies at 71

September 27, 2011

This is a repost from Our Kitchen Table

The obituary on Democracy Now reads, “Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, died Sunday after a long struggle with cancer. She was 71 years old. In 1977, she spearheaded the struggle against state-backed deforestation in Kenya and founded the Green Belt Movement, which has planted some 45 million trees in the country. She has also been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and democratic development. She won the Right Livelihood Award in 1984. Twenty years later, she won the Nobel Peace Prize.”

This writer posted the following Indy Media story after Maathai’s 2007 visit to Grand Rapids.

Wangari Maathai at Fountain Street Church

“Every one of us needs ten trees to take care of the carbon dioxide we breathe out. We should know where our ten trees are. Or, are you using somebody else’s trees?” Wangari Maathai

2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Wangari Maathai opened her lecture with observations on the biblical creation story as told in the book of Genesis. She noted that every day, after making another aspect of the environment, the creator commented, “It is good,” except for the last day, the day humanity was created. “We have convinced ourselves we are more important than the rest of creation,” Maathai said. “But, we cannot live without trees. They can live without us.”

Maathai believes that because we have higher intelligence, we have a moral responsibility to ensure that other species survive. She applied that belief in Kenya, where as a young biologist she was studying the tic’s role in East Coast Fever, a fatal epidemic killing hybrid cattle. Her fieldwork led her to observe that Kenya’s environment had been degraded. Because of deforestation upstream, fertile topsoil was filling the rivers as silt; rainwaters were washing away into lakes and the ocean instead of returning to groundwater reservoirs; and, rivers were beginning to dry up.

“This was much more dangerous than the tics,” she said.

Then, in 1975, her work with the National Council of Women of Kenya opened her eyes to the serious issues facing Kenya’s women: they did not have enough wood for household energy; they did not have clean drinking water; they did not have nutritious food; they had no ways to generate income. Maathai’s solution “Let us plant trees.”

“We went to the foresters and asked, ‘Can you teach us how to plant trees?’ This is difficult when the people are illiterate and a professional tried to teach you. To cut a long story short, we teach ourselves, use our common sense, our woman sense. Forget the foresters. We started teaching ourselves how to grow trees.”

Much of Kenya had been clear-cut; the British had introduced pines and eucalyptus that drank too much water and dried out the land. “We wanted to restore indigenous vegetation, biodiversity. It’s a campaign we are till carrying out,” she shared.

Maathai encouraged groups of women to plant trees “whichever way.” The women collected native seeds, planted them in all sorts of cast-off containers and nurtured the seedlings till transplanting them. The women earned money for each seedling planted, generating income for themselves. The new forests help provide wood for energy and stifle the erosion that has robbed farms of topsoil and rivers of clean water. The women taught other women how to be “Foresters without Diplomas.” Today, Kenya has more than 7,000 tree nurseries run by these women.

Though more than 30 million trees have been planted in Kenya, Maathai’s work is not done. When she began in the ’70s, 30% of Kenya was covered by forests. Only 2% is today. However, her work with the women became a catalyst for another change. As the women empowered themselves, and the people found their voices, many spoke out against Kenya’s dictatorial regime.

“If you do not live in a society that is democratic, that allows a minority voice to be heard, it is difficult to protect the environment,” Maathai said. “The freedom of movement. The freedom of assembly. The freedom of expression. The freedom of the press. You have all these freedoms. In a society like yours, you take for granted. When you are at their (the government’s) mercy, they are very pleasant. When you are free, you become troublesome.”

“To cut a long story short,” Kenya became a democracy in 2002; Maathai serves in parliament and as Assistant Minister for the Environment. But, she does not advise people to wait on their governments to take care of the environment.

Read Maathai's inspiring memoir.

“We can plant trees. Anybody can dig a hole. Plant a tree in that hole. Water it. Make sure it survives,” she said. “The government is the custodian of the environment. If the custodian is not doing his job, you fire him during elections.”

Today in Kenya, Maathai has undertaken a campaign to reduce the proliferation of plastic bags and packaging that is polluting Kenya’s cities, impacting its wildlife and creating an untold number of breeding puddles for malaria-infected mosquitoes. She is also working with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) as Goodwill Ambassador for the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem project–the goal, to plant one billion trees. She invited the audience to visit the Web site and get involved in the project. The Conga Forest, Amazon Forest and the South East Asian Forest are an important defense against the climate change that impacts all of us.

“It is the rich nations who really have to understand that, although the resources look like a lot around you, they are coming from people who are impoverished,” Maathai said. “Sooner or later, there will be conflict and it will affect us.”

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