For Nobel Prize Winner, Social Justice Means Planting Trees

Image: Flickr, Gary J. Wood
Image: Flickr, Gary J. Wood

She was the first woman in all of East Africa to hold a Ph.D and head a university department. She’s been beaten unconscious by security police, arrested and imprisoned, and appointed to the Cabinet.

Her husband divorced her for being ‘too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control.’ A committee in Sweden gave her the Nobel Peace Prize. But all Wangari Maathai really wants, she says, ‘is to be remembered as somebody who planted trees.’

Affable, humble, as focused as she is adamant, Maathai, a Kenyan, has dedicated her life to a creative mix of ecology and social causes, taking personal and political risk to safeguard the environment to protect the economic livelihoods and health of Africa’s most disempowered – women and children.

‘Previously we talked about a trickle-down theory of development which starts in the city and is expected to get to the rural folk,’ she said. ‘This has been proven wrong. Now we know that trickle-up theory, the upward development that many women and environmental activists have been advocating, is the best.’

A woman of many firsts, Wangari was awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in October, beating out prominent nominees such as US President George Bush and Pope John Paul II to become the only African woman ever to be so honoured. In doing so, she joins the rarified ranks of previous African recipients of the prize: Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, F. W. de Klerk and Albert Luthuli.

Currently a member of parliament in Kenya and deputy minister of environment, natural resources and wildlife, Maathai attracted international recognition for her activist role in the promotion of environmental conservation through her Green Belt Movement (GBM), which she started in 1977 to combat rapid commercially driven deforestation and desertification in her country.

Noble intentions

Her main concern was to create a sustainable supply of fuel wood for rural African women while halting soil erosion and other threatening forms of environmental degradation. Her Greenbelt campaign eventually broadened its focus, advocating broader provision of education, nutrition and women’s rights – issues that are only just now gaining traction across a traditionally strongly male-dominated continent.

Enlisting more than 50,000 poor women as foot soldiers, Maathai’s Greenbelt movement has led to the planting of some 30 million trees in Kenya and several other countries. Kenya’s forest cover currently stands at just 1.7% of total land area. According to the United Nations, only nine trees are replanted for every 100 cut down in Africa.

The Nobel committee cited her combined commitment to science, social concerns and political equality. ‘The award is an honour to men and women of this world who are working so hard at the grass-roots level to make the world a better place,’ she said.

A mother of three, Maathai’s academic career took her from the Loreto Girls High School in the town of Limuru to the St. Scholastica College in Kansas, the University of Pittsburgh, and Munich University in Germany. Along the way, she studied biology, chemistry, embryonic development and veterinary anatomy. Her path was marked by numerous scholarships for academic excellence. In 1969, she became the first female professor in Kenya, lecturing in microanatomy at the University of Nairobi. In a male-dominated workplace, she battled to hold her ground. ‘I later realised that I have human brains and not woman brains,’ she said. ‘So I set out to make use of them’.

Ironically, for all her scientific and medical training, she has courted the most controversy for her unorthodox view that HIV/AIDS was deliberately created for use against Africans. Refusing to back off that position even after winning the Prize, she stated in a press conference shortly after the Nobel announcement that ‘us black people are dying more than any other people in this planet. It’s true that there are some people who create agents to wipe out other people.’

But her main concern has always been environmental destruction and its social consequences. Maathai drew international attention in the late 1980s with her blunt confrontations with the entrenched and notoriously corrupt administration of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi – a campaign she said was meant to ‘eradicate ignorance and fear among Kenyans.’

The most memorable clash between Maathai and the Moi administration came in 1989, when she single-handedly and successfully opposed the construction of a 50-storey skyscraper in the middle of Uhuru Park, Nairobi’s largest recreational common. She was vilified in parliament by members who accused her of opposing something for public utility. One MP, the late Paul Chepkok, threatened her with forceful circumcision should she try to plant trees in his district.

Maathai was subsequently arrested and put in jail, but to her credit the issue attracted international interest and the project’s international financiers eventually backed out of the deal.

She was at it again in 1992 when she led a demonstration of elderly women in a naked protest march against unlawful detention of Moi’s political opponents, including sons of several of the women. Although Maathai and her group were bludgeoned unconscious, the prisoners were ultimately released in the run-up to the elections that year.

But what irked the Moi government most was her 1999 crusade against state efforts to hive off parts of Karura Forest – Nairobi’s major catchment area – for private development. The forestlands, adjacent to the United Nations Environmental Programme headquarters, were issued to politically connected businessmen allegedly in return for contributions to the ruling party’s election coffers. Once again, Maathai was beaten and sustained severe physical injuries.

Unfazed, Maathai was back again two years later, blocking a government plan to excise 167,000 acres of forestland in 12 forests spread across Rift Valley and Central Provinces.

Her fight to save the forests did not end with the exit of the Moi government the following year. Although elected to parliament and appointed to the new Cabinet of President Mwai Kibaki, she has openly opposed a government decision to reverse the ban on a colonial-era rural land-use system that allowed landless peasants to engage in subsistence farming in patches of the forest while looking after the trees in return. Maathai argues that the system, which she says is grossly abused, has destroyed most vital forests and reduced water levels in rivers and streams.

She shrugs off criticism from her parliamentary colleagues that she is insensitive to the landless and who have threatened to mobilise her own constituents against her in the next elections. ‘I would rather lose the seat than the forests,’ she says.

Looking back over her many battles, Maathai, who received an honorary doctorate in law from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1990, reflects on her contribution to social equality. ‘I am not driven by issues about women, but what affects the community as a whole,’ she said. ‘The challenges I face are not because I am a woman, but arise as a result of those who want to gain mileage at the expense of the community’.