Wangari Muta Maathai (1940–2011), environmental activist and diplomat, women’s rights supporter, and pro-democracy advocate from Kenya, was the first woman from Africa to be honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize. She received the prize for ‘her contribution to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights’. Maathai was also the first individual to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 2004, for a life’s work of steadfast protection of the natural environment. Of the ninety-seven individuals awarded the Nobel Peace Prize before Maathai in 2004, only twelve were women. The presentation speech by Ole Danbolt Mjøs, chair of the Nobel Peace Committee, described Maathai’s efforts in a particularly poignant manner:
Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment. Maathai stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa. She has taken a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular. She thinks globally and acts locally.
Maathai was laid to rest in Nairobi on 26 September 2011 at the age of 71, having succumbed to ovarian cancer. The landscape of her life was expansive and productive. With great energy and vision for more than forty years she demonstrated many times over that fighting environmental injustices captures the essence of democracy. In drawing inspiration from nature and dedicating her life to helping the poorest of the poor, she is widely considered to have been the world’s first icon of sustainable development. As one of Africa’s most charismatic and loved female leaders, Maathai taught and inspired hundreds of thousands of people to improve their quality of life by protecting the natural environment. She is remembered as a humble and compassionate traditionalist with the determination and strength of character of a lion.
Wangari Maathai started her career as an academic. She was appointed associate professor and served as chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi in 1977. She was the first woman in East Africa to occupy these academic positions. Prior to these achievements, at the age of 31, she was also the first woman from East Africa to obtain a doctorate. Maathai was active in Kenya’s National Council of Women between 1976 and 1987, and served as its chair between 1981 and 1987 – a busy period that shaped the course of her life’s work. In 1976, she founded a community-based tree-planting organisation, the Green Belt Movement. This organisation, which worked with women’s groups in Kenya, became the mother body for her environmental peace-building efforts.
Maathai actively lobbied to protect the environment, human rights and democracy, and stridently fought government corruption. She made strategic use of platforms for building transnational relationships. She addressed the United Nations on several occasions and served on commissions associated with civil society groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Maathai and her Green Belt Movement were honoured with numerous prestigious awards that brought international attention to their efforts. As far back as 1987, the Green Belt Movement was recognised by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) through its ‘Global 500 Roll of Honour’. Maathai was thus a pioneer of the global environmental movement at a time when there was not that much awareness about these issues.
Environmental conflict – from political confrontation to violent struggle – is produced through resistance to certain forms of governance and acts of power. Maathai’s persistent agitations for environmental justice and social equality were driven by illegal developments on public land or in ecologically fragile territories on which people depended for their well-being and incomes. She also fought against ‘big men’ elites and those in high office in post-colonial Kenya who forcibly displaced poor communities from public land.
Between 1978 and 2002, during the tumultuous years of Daniel arap Moi’s dictatorship in Kenya, the Green Belt Movement led campaigns that aimed to narrow power divides. These ranged from excursions to tree nurseries and tree-planting ceremonies, to mass rallies. These campaigns sometimes ended up with the protestors being beaten and even killed by the police. Moi labelled Maathai ‘a mad woman’ and declared her a serious threat to the stability of Kenya. Throughout those years, Maathai endured ethnic prejudice (she was Kikuyu, the most populous ethnic group in Kenya), repressive patriarchy, jail sentences, police brutality and living in hiding.
By mobilising activism against Kenya’s history of domination and dispossession of its natural resources, Maathai provided a bold and independent voice for peace and justice. She took up the challenge of changing this history. She worked to include the excluded in social and political life, and inspired people to take up the reins of self-sufficiency in order to reap the rewards of hard work and commitment.
There was a stellar rise in global awareness of environmental concerns in the decade preceding 2004. International NGOs such as the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), among many others, released reports that created waves of alarm. Termed the ‘sixth wave of extinction’, the accelerating rate at which species and natural ecosystems were being lost due to human activities was unprecedented in the history of the planet. Enabled by the boom in Internet, satellite television and other forms of communication, environmental crises from remote locations in the developing world riveted public attention: large tracts of forest ecosystems were still intact but steadily dwindling; bushmeat hunting and trade had reached critical levels; illegal logging of forests by multinational companies was being sanctioned by governments; ‘land-grabbing’ from local communities by governments colluding with businesses was rampant; and erosion of cultural heritage and indigenous environmental knowledge systems continued apace. That conflicts arising from poverty, mismanagement and corruption greatly impacted the environment had become evident.
Maathai introduced a new understanding of the drivers of environmental conflict. Her work became widely appreciated for enriching a global understanding about how disaffection and humiliations associated with environmental inequalities triggered confrontational misunderstandings, social rage and mass violence. This provided diagnoses for civil paths to democracy and governance accountability. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Maathai credited her for constructing a conciliatory approach to environmentalism by using peace activism and civic education to resolve environmental problems and, more importantly, for placing environmental issues at the top of the global development agenda. The prize thus marked a major, global transition in the understanding that environmental protection can be a path to peace-building. Resolving environmental conflicts such as those relating to community rights of ownership and accessibility to land, water and biodiversity resources was finally being widely recognised as a fundamental prerequisite for democracy and peace. However, the award had been long overdue. Twenty years before being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Maathai was honoured with the Right Livelihood Award in 1984 ‘for converting the Kenyan ecological debate into mass action for reforestation’. This award, founded by Swedish parliamentarian and writer Jacob von Uexküll and often referred to as the ‘alternative Nobel Peace Prize’, was visionary in its recognition of the relationship between peace, environmental protection and human rights.
Wangari Maathai’s inspiration was deeply embedded in her memories of pre-independence Kenya and the landscape surrounding her childhood home near the town of Nyeri. She has often said that the person she most admired was her mother, who encouraged her to attend missionary school during an era when it was frowned upon for Kenyan girls to do so.
Maathai was a beneficiary of American benevolence. As one of around 300 Africans selected in 1959 for scholarships from the prestigious Joseph P. Kennedy Junior Foundation, she rode this wave of academic opportunity that initiated the ‘Kennedy Airlift’ (or ‘Airlift Africa’) and shaped her destiny to global success. She spent six years in the United States pursuing university education during the height of the American Civil Rights Movement. In 1960, she enrolled at Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College) in Kansas, where she received her Bachelor of Science degree in 1964 (biology major, with minors in chemistry and German), after which she took up graduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where she received a Master’s degree in biology. The latter studies were funded by the Africa–America Institute. At the time, Martin Luther King Jr had just received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, one year after his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Maathai, in her early twenties and a devoted student and Catholic, did not, however, participate in the Black Renaissance protest meetings or marches that flared up across America.
The late 1970s marked a turning point for Maathai, as her time in the United States had shaped her political consciousness. On returning to a recently independent Kenya in 1966 as a newly single mother with three young children, Maathai was overwhelmed by the frustration, destitution and injustice in her country. She took to heart the realisation that these problems were associated with similar changes she too had experienced during her rural childhood. Her memories were of pristine landscapes that had been tamed by the colonial British rulers and subjected to their own imperial needs. Natural woodlands had been converted to cash crops such as tea and coffee, a practice that continued after Kenya’s independence in the form of political favours exchanged for land bribes.
The catalyst for the formation of the Green Belt Movement was Maathai’s empathy for rural women who had begun to complain about a lack of clean water, the depletion of tree and firewood stocks, and changing rainfall patterns. The decline in soil productivity and drying of rivers had resulted in insufficient food production and impoverishment. Maathai’s commitment to the environmental cause was ignited by empowering women to become financially self-sufficient. These early experiences provided impetus for her extensive tree-planting projects.
In addition, a series of global environmental policy events, led primarily by the United Nations over a forty-year period, gradually built an ideological platform for environmental peace-building. The earliest and most notable of these can be traced to the Conference on the Human Environment (also known as the Stockholm Conference), hosted in 1972 by the UN General Assembly at the initiative of the Swedish government. In recognising the ecological importance of forests, the Stockholm Conference had made recommendations to monitor, protect and manage forest ecosystems as natural assets.
A more pronounced and strategic approach to environmental governance came about after 1983, from the UN Brundtland Commission, named after its chair Gro Harlem Brundtland, a doctor and diplomat who served three terms as prime minister of Norway (1981, 1986–89, 1990–96). The Commission discussed the social, economic and political dimensions of environmental management and governance, introducing a shift from narrow species-based concerns for nature (saving species and ecosystems) to broader but still well-defined objectives and solutions for protecting the environment.
The Brundtland Commission’s 1987 report, Our Common Future, was groundbreaking in that it put forth the concept of sustainable development: ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ This concept became the engine of the environmental movement in subsequent years. It heralded the emergence of a concerted global response, in particular an increasingly sophisticated governance response, to the requirements for, and expectations of, sustainable development.
The global community’s renewed commitment to, and aspiration for, sustainable development took place at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (popularly called the Earth Summit), which was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Here the Convention on Biological Diversity was opened for signature. The Convention’s three key aims were to conserve biological diversity, to ensure sustainable use and development of the environment, and to bring about fair and equitable sharing of benefits.
Maathai was witness to this dynamic epoch of environmental governance. She attended the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. Her addresses to UN delegates on behalf of an international NGO coalition raised her international profile, bolstered the Green Belt Movement’s activities and provided inspiration to align its work to the UN’s sustainable development agenda.
Poverty is often associated with multidimensional social, cultural and political aspects of economic deprivation. It strips personal power. Unemployed and low-income people, referred to in such denigrating terms as ‘the bottom billion’, are frequently portrayed as abstractions of development projects. This ‘curse’ of poverty, as British economist Paul Collier called it, dehumanises the poor as they struggle to eke out a decent livelihood in developing countries.
Maathai understood that the gap between rich and poor could not be reduced unless people’s relationship with the state was changed. She recognised that restoring and affirming self-worth, which is typically negated by abject poverty, would be necessary to improve the lives of the masses. The excluded and marginalised would need to develop a personal sense of citizenship in order to unlock the potential for change that resided within them.
By working to protect the environment and to plant trees, Maathai provided opportunities for ordinary people to claim their dignity by becoming self-reliant. Her approach was to advocate that poor people be recognised as under-engaged citizens who possess untapped reservoirs of innovation from which society could draw, and not be seen as powerless subjects without ‘know-how’ and at the mercy of the patronage of others. Maathai’s key role, therefore, was to serve as an agent of change – a leader of sustainable development and a builder of peace and democracy.
After the 1992 Earth Summit, vast resources and mechanisms were put in place to mobilise the Convention on Biological Diversity and the sustainable development agenda.
Many entered political office or influential NGOs. Unlike Maathai, however, many lost touch with the needs and aspirations of local communities with whom they were working. Few noted the gaps between the actual and perceived impacts of their work on the lives of ordinary people. Amid the quest of others to translate the concept of sustainable development into practical activities, Maathai had long been practising this approach herself. She remained one of a handful of seasoned activists who continued to work in the ‘trenches’ and to get soil under her nails.
The Green Belt Movement grew rapidly. By 1980, just four years after the movement had been founded, almost 600 tree nurseries involving as many as 3,000 women had been built. By that time, some 2,000 green public areas with about 1,000 seedlings each had also been established, and more than 15,000 farmers had planted woodlots on their farms. By 2004, over 30 million trees had been planted across Africa through the Green Belt Movement’s influence. Through its modus operandi of simplicity and old-fashioned naturalism, the movement developed a pan-African mandate, which became widely adopted in several African countries by the late 1980s. In the process, farming techniques and knowledge were also transferred to local communities.
The Green Belt Movement further provided civic education about the link between degradation of the environment and development, and encouraged women to create jobs by preventing soil loss, retarding desertification and reducing the loss of biodiversity. As a result of the more stable natural environment that was created by tree planting, women were able to grow and sell crops, support the needs of their family and release themselves from the enslavement of poverty.
Maathai’s other contribution, less recognised but equally important, was bringing to light what ecologist and writer Robert Pyle described as the ‘extinction of experience’. This phenomenon refers to social disaffection and apathy to nature. One of the greatest causes of the environmental crisis is the state of personal alienation from nature in which many people live. Nigerian author Ben Okri captured the spirit of the ‘extinction of experience’ with remarkable pathos in his celebrated work of literary fiction The Famished Road, for which he won the Booker Prize in 1991. The dialogue between the spirit-child, Azaro and Madame Koto illustrates Azaro’s imaginative empathy for the annihilation of nature and its influence on his identity. Azaro imagines himself first becoming a tree and part of the forest. Then, to preserve his identity and sense of place, he imagines himself turning into a road:
‘Then I will become a tree’, I said.
‘Then they will cut you down because of a road.’
‘Then I will turn into the road.’
‘Cars will ride on you, cows will shit on you, people will perform sacrifices on your face.’
‘And I will cry at night. And then people will remember the forest.’
Thus, Maathai’s corpus of work demonstrated that the majority of poor rural people in societies throughout the world have retained a distinct dependence on nature, unlike their faster-paced urban counterparts.
Examples were evident in how seeds were selected and planted, the methods of cultivating and tending to seedlings, and harvesting techniques. The Kenyan environmentalist rarely relied on Western scientific advice or textbooks, preferring instead the trial-and-error methods of cultivating tree seedlings in nurseries and transplanting them to unlock people’s spiritual connectedness to nature.
The environmental impacts of Maathai’s work are multiple and have resulted in tangible benefits. Reforestation improves Planet Earth’s green lungs because forests function as carbon sinks of greenhouse gases, thereby helping to inhibit the effects of climate change. The Green Belt Movement’s tree-planting projects curbed soil erosion in critical watersheds. Thousands of acres of biodiversity-rich indigenous forest and woodland were rehabilitated and safeguarded. Stocks of wood for fire-making, fencing and building were better managed, both for the rural people and for the urban poor.
Wishing to contribute more purposefully to nation-building by infusing holistic and socially responsible principles into governance challenges in Kenya, Maathai was encouraged to enter the political arena and work towards uniting opposition parties in her country. She ran unsuccessfully for the Kenyan parliament and presidency in 1997. Maathai again campaigned for parliament in the 2002 Kenyan elections. In 2003, after Moi had stepped down after twenty-four years in office, she won a parliamentary seat by a 98 per cent margin in her rural constituency. She was subsequently appointed assistant minister of Kenya’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources in the government of President Mwai Kibaki.
Maathai’s position in parliament was short-lived. The prestige associated with the Nobel Peace Prize attracted envy and disfavour among fellow parliamentarians and rivals. Amid ballot-box controversy, she was voted out of national office in the 2007 primary elections. Apocalyptic fears fuelled by climate change, particularly concerning food and water security, and the race for technological intelligence, appear to have shaped Maathai’s post-Nobel work. Her intention was to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by actively promoting forest protection and tree planting, as well as by lobbying governments to undertake concerted efforts to combat the effects of climate change.
In 2005, Maathai was elected the first president of the African Union’s (AU) Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC), which was charged with promoting interaction between the AU’s leaders and civil society. She sought to place climate change on the AU’s agenda, and called on African heads of state to reduce the vulnerability of their countries to this phenomenon by equipping them with knowledge, skills and jobs to adopt sustainable technologies. As Maathai pointed out in a press release on the eve of the AU Summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, in June 2011:
Many of our countries have experienced decades of environmental mismanagement or outright neglect. Indeed, some governments – including my own – have facilitated the plunder of the forests, the degradation of the land and unsustainable agricultural practices. Many communities in Africa are already threatened by the negative impacts of climate change. Children in Africa are dying from malnutrition as women struggle to farm on land that is less and less productive. People on coastlines are losing their homes as the seas consume the coastlines.
Maathai argued that climate change presented a serious threat to Africa, with the poorest people likely to be hardest hit. (The AU honoured her by posthumously recognising her life’s work in January 2012.) Maathai was appointed by the African Development Bank as the ‘Goodwill Ambassador of the Congo Forest Basin’ in 2005. She noted that ‘the Congo rainforest should not be seen just as a national or regional resource, but rather as a global treasure that acts as the Earth’s lung and one of its greatest hopes for the mitigation of global warming and climate change.’ Beginning in 2006, Maathai was an active patron of the UN’s ‘Plant for the Planet: Billion Tree Campaign’, which today has a presence in 170 countries. As of September 2012, more than 12.6 billion trees have been planted under this project.
Maathai’s campaign activities on behalf of the UN climate change process were launched when she was inaugurated as a UN ‘Messenger of Peace’ in 2009. At the fifteenth Conference of Parties convened by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), also called COP15, which was hosted in the Danish capital of Copenhagen in 2009, the Kenyan environmentalist called on world leaders to commit resources to support African countries in addressing the destructive impacts of climate change. Principally obstructed by the position of the United States (which refused to commit to carbon emission targets because developing countries are exempted from setting targets), expectations for a breakthrough deal at COP15 to bind countries into further climate change agreements were dashed. Fewer than thirty countries agreed to an accord. Undeterred, Maathai put shoulder to the wheel on behalf of the UN’s calls to action, including becoming an advocate of its new Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation in Developing Countries Programme (UN-REDD).
Maathai also sought to elevate the influence of female leadership and to garner support for women’s rights, first through the Green Belt Movement and later through various international platforms. She was a founding member of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, along with female Nobel peace laureates Shirin Ebadi (2003, Iran), Jody Williams (1997, United States), Rigoberta Menchú Tum (1992, Guatemala) and Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire (Northern Ireland, jointly 1976). Until her death in September 2011, Maathai continued to be active in Kenya and on the world stage – particularly through the United Nations – and was still being honoured with awards of lifetime achievement and honorary doctorates from universities across the globe.
Wangari Maathai had several significant interactions with other Nobel peace laureates, the most notable being Al Gore, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, jointly with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on the Convention for Climate Change (IPCCC). Maathai met Gore (then still an American senator and an ardent and charismatic Green campaigner) when he visited the Green Belt Movement’s headquarters and field sites in Kenya in 1990. Together, they planted a Podocarpus tree (African yellow wood). Gore subsequently recounted his positive impressions about the Green Belt Movement in his 1992 bestseller Earth in the Balance.
In 1992, two years after their meeting in Kenya and the year that Gore was elected US vice president in the Bill Clinton administration (1993–2000), Maathai called on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee to intervene against criminal charges from the Kenyan government that prevented her from travelling to the Earth Summit that year. Eight senators, including Gore, asked the Moi regime to substantiate the charges against her. By then, Maathai was already well known internationally for her pro-democracy campaign. The charges were dropped, and she was able to attend the Earth Summit, where she held a much publicised press conference with Gore and another Nobel peace laureate, Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama (awarded the Peace Prize in 1989).
Maathai continued to work tirelessly with Gore in lobbying powerful donors to protect the world’s forest expanses in order to reverse the damaging effects of climate change. They lobbied the US Senate, as well as the UN General Assembly, NGOs and others to invest in forest conservation projects that could significantly reduce deforestation and in turn mitigate the negative effects of climate change.
Maathai’s meeting with US president Barack Obama took place in the same way as that with Gore. In 2006, Obama, then a US senator on a pre-election tour, paid his first official visit to Kenya. Maathai and Obama held a public tree-planting ceremony at Uhuru Park in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi: the same site where Maathai had held a successful mass protest rally some fifteen years earlier against the proposed Kenya Times Media Trust Complex development on public land. Uhuru Park’s Freedom Corner became synonymous with Maathai’s struggle for democracy and environmental conservation in Kenya. It was in this park that hunger strikes, violent skirmishes and unlawful arrests involving security forces armed with live ammunition had occurred on several occasions. At the 2006 tree-planting ceremony, which Obama’s family also attended, the US senator deplored President George W. Bush’s refusal to join the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Later, Maathai, together with Muhammad Yunus, who was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his banking social entrepreneurship schemes for the poor in Bangladesh, strongly endorsed Obama as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, referring to him in their media campaign as the ‘leader of the free world’.
During her brief parliamentary tenure, Maathai worked with another prominent Nobel peace laureate, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan of Ghana, who was awarded the Peace Prize in 2001. Years earlier, she had served on Annan’s advisory board on disarmament, which had condemned the 1998 violence at Karura Forest, an ecologically spectacular area just 20 kilometres from the centre of Nairobi. The upheaval, which killed more than 200 people, was the result of opposition to the juggernaut of proposed luxury developments in which government officials reportedly held personal business interests. Large groups of concerned citizens, members of the UN Environment Programme and the Kenya Human Rights Commission, as well as parliamentarians, journalists and affiliates of the Green Belt Movement, confronted thugs hired by the developers. Maathai was severely beaten until she lost consciousness. When Annan was appointed by the African Union as its chief mediator to facilitate a power-sharing election deal in Kenya between Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki in 2007, Maathai worked with Annan on national pro-democracy efforts. Brutal clashes had erupted throughout Kenya in the aftermath of the 2007 polls, resulting in thirty days of violence during which more than 1,220 people were killed, 3,500 were injured and 350,000 were displaced.
In the run-up to the fifteenth Conference of Parties convened by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in 2009, Maathai and South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu came out in strong support of Annan’s ‘Time for Climate Justice’ campaign. As a means to help break the deadlock in the COP15 negotiations, Maathai addressed the UN General Assembly, urging the United States to persuade wealthier industrialised countries to reward developing countries for conserving and augmenting their remaining forest cover. Tutu and Maathai appealed to Africa to have its voice heard, and argued that because the continent had emitted an almost negligible amount of carbon compared to wealthier countries, support from these African countries for climate change projects was required. Maathai and Tutu lobbied for concrete actions that aimed to pressure Western countries and China to accelerate support to the countries most vulnerable to climate change. Nobel peace laureates Maathai, Gore, Annan and Tutu thus joined forces to further drive the global climate change agenda.
There is little doubt that Maathai’s African descent is relevant to her Nobel Peace Prize award. Her contributions to the peace movement were especially significant in the decade following the tragic public execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his fellow environmental activists by General Sani Abacha’s military dictatorship in Nigeria in November 1995. As the founder of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), Saro-Wiwa had fought against Anglo-Dutch company Shell’s exploitation of oil, which had turned Nigeria’s Niger Delta region into an environmental wasteland and impoverished the Ogoni people. Though South Africa was often able to exercise its influence on the continent, even the pleas of its president, Nobel peace laureate Nelson Mandela, could not convince Abacha to grant clemency for the activists.
Of great concern to Africa, too, was the global conversion of uncultivated territory into agricultural land, reflected in the loss of total forest area and increased exploitation of remaining forests around the world, but of highest prevalence in Africa. The continent’s overreliance on its natural capital for economic growth and to provide basic human welfare (firewood, food, medicines and shelter, and ecosystem services such as water and productive soil) motivated an attempt by global forces to secure Africa’s natural heritage as an asset base for raw materials. The appetite of foreign markets for biological resources from Africa, such as indigenous timber and bio-patent rights for herbal pharmaceutical products, was steadily increasing.
Critical of the international community’s apathy towards Africa, Maathai was a much-needed voice of hope for the continent. Hers was a voice that was recognisable to the United Nations and other influential global institutions long before she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, all the more so because Africa has had so few female icons and role models. The vast majority of African women today still remain undereducated and subject to patriarchal norms that inhibit them from reaching their full potential. As the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Maathai inspired Africans, especially its young women, to liberate themselves from fear and silence. Similar to the other two female African Nobel peace laureates, Maathai, through her social activism, provoked significant changes to entrenched social inequalities and injustices. Her focus was on inadequate access to natural resources as she rejuvenated environmental activism around the world.
At the highly charged UN World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in the South African megalopolis of Johannesburg in 2002, Britain’s secretary of international development Clare Short denounced environmentalism by suggesting that it was an elitist ‘greenie’ concern of the privileged classes and therefore of less priority than poverty eradication. This statement caused considerable consternation among the environmental NGOs and civil society groups in attendance. The suggestion that environmentalism and poverty eradication were somehow in contradiction with each other was comprehensively debunked by Maathai, who demonstrated through her life’s work that poverty and environmental degradation are not mutually independent phenomena. Each drives the other. The cycle of poverty – from unemployment and hopelessness to illness and malnutrition – can only be broken when the natural environment is managed in a responsible manner. A widespread belief among many environmentalists from developing countries, like Maathai, was the idea that the protection of nature requires an overall recasting of society’s norms and values, as well as economic structures.
Maathai’s work further brings to light the inconsistent relationship that many environmentalists have with science. The hazards posed to the climate by greenhouse gas emissions are rarely questioned today. But, unlike the science behind climate change, the equally compelling science behind genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is often given a lot less credence. Maathai was an advocate of planting indigenous and genetically unaltered tree species, and was resolutely opposed to genetically modified organisms. She adopted the UN’s ‘precautionary principle’ stance (from the UN Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety of the Convention on Biological Diversity of 2000), which called for more research into the potential environmental impacts associated with GMOs and clarification on corporate monopolies arising from biotechnological patent rights. Maathai blamed Christianity, a theology to which she herself subscribed, for the commercialisation of nature. Since founding the Green Belt Movement in 1976, she had consistently warned that fast-growing commercial trees, such as eucalyptus (originally from Australia), were causing rivers in parts of Africa to dry up and water tables to recede. In fact, one of the Kikuyu names for eucalyptus is munyua maai, which means ‘drinker of water’. Maathai was strongly opposed to the Kenyan government’s provision to farmers of several million cuttings of genetically modified eucalyptus that had been imported from South Africa.
Ideological differences existed between Maathai and Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for ‘improving crop management practices that transformed food production in much of the developing world’. Borlaug, who died in 2009 at the age of 91, was a biotechnological pioneer in the global fight against hunger and malnutrition. The American reasoned that poor farmers in developing countries could be guaranteed sustainable incomes, which in turn would reduce pressure to convert large swathes of nature into agricultural landscapes. There is a growing demand from farmers for genetically modified organisms. Compared to indigenous species, crop yields of GMOs are purported to be higher, more drought-resistant and less prone to insect predation, which in turn results in higher and more secure forms of income. African countries are fearful that allowing corporations to sell patented seeds will lead to a new form of neo-colonialism, while others are of the opinion that these debates are being controlled by the rich North. It had been hoped that Maathai would use her considerable stature to influence these debates in a world where food crises are compounded by changing climate patterns.
The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change hosted its first Conference of Parties (COP1) in the German capital Berlin in 1995, where the Berlin Mandate was passed to define solutions to climate change. The conference agreed to the Kyoto Protocol at COP3 in 1997. The Protocol binds the wealthiest, most polluting countries to set clear targets for reductions in carbon emissions. As of 2013, the carbon-intensive Group of Eight (G8) economies (including the United States, Canada and Russia) have yet to commit to carbon reduction targets, reflecting the enduring stumbling block in the Kyoto Protocol negotiations associated with the phrase ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’.
Maathai’s 2004 Nobel Peace Prize award marked the 120th anniversary of an important historical event: German chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s Conference of Berlin, held in 1884–85, which brought together fourteen mostly European countries that set the rules for the subsequent partition of Africa. The legacy of Berlin left by the ‘Scramble for Africa’ has left the continent in disarray. This imperialism has some parallels with the rigorous, multilateral approach to climate change solutions that arose from the UN’s COP1 Berlin Mandate. The discontent stems from the fact that a single global body (the United Nations) has exercised rigorous control of the climate change agenda and exerted influence on national sovereignties. The world body has steered the direction of climate change science (published in successive reports of the IPCCC), provoked alarmism in the guise of raising awareness (principally the Stern Review of 2007), facilitated international treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, put in place and promoted a carbon-trading concept, and monitored and regulated carbon emissions.
The ‘curse’ of the Berlin mandate is becoming evident. Many analysts have pronounced the UN’s multilateral approach to be dead. If it is, then the UN’s climate change efforts represent the greatest process failure in the history of the organisation. Wangari Maathai and other Nobel peace laureates who supported this cause would have been greatly disillusioned. The seeds sown by Maathai have germinated. Whether they can still take root remains to be seen.
Maathai was a distinguished environmentalist. As one of Africa’s most powerful female leaders and ambassadors, she is unrivalled on the continent for the decisiveness and consistency of her contributions to the global environmental movement. She demonstrated that self-sufficiency and resourcefulness provide the only gateway to global sustainability. When we behave in a humane way and respect our natural heritage – even through simple actions such as planting trees – we can sustain the cultural and moral ties that bind us together as human beings responsible for future generations.