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Wangari Mathaai: A Global
Voice Of Fortitude

By Farah Aziz

24 March, 2007

March 21st 07 . It had been a hectic day for her, her first day in India, but Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel peace prize, will not undermine any of her priorities. Invited to India by Rajiv Gandhi foundation and Indian council for cultural relations to deliver lectures on linkages between environment, governance and peace, Wangari has little more to say. At Navdanya, she opens up a bit more.

Beginning with biodiversity and the coexistence of natural varieties of seeds, she soon progresses into a wider arena of diversity and peaceful coexistence people on earth.

"Our earth is a given territory, it can not be furthered, auxiliary stations can't be created to accommodate the growing masses. The only tonic is harmony, and coexistence. We are given with limited resources and we all have to share it and manage responsibly and accountably. Power equations have not to engulf the share of the minority. We can't live in a world where some are very rich and the others are very poor and remain despondent. There has to be a system where the voices of the minority are listened. Equal distribution of resources is indispensable; otherwise we will be in hands with numerous conflicts that we are actually facing in the present world. There is a constant rise in demand and so newer conflicts of interest are evident. We have fights on land, water, oil, minerals, seed, fruit, and even micro organisms", says Wangari.

Coming back to biodiversity and the contemporary fight for the patenting of seeds, as well as the right of India to protest the production of Genetically Modified crops, she says that seed is one of the most important resources we have, because we all need to eat, and that India has a glorious history of an age old civilization when various seeds were developed by the ancient farmers, and then it is totally unacceptable that some external body comes and decides to change the complete system and dominate.

According to Wangari, it is sheer encroachment and the violation of human rights, what Monasanto has tried to propagate in India. "He has no right to decide what India will produce and what the masses will consume. This dominance has to end", says Wangari.

Wangari further dismisses the corporates as 'mere profiteers'. "Corporates act on the impulse of demand. This they do by first creating false demands, and once they succeed, they get the product patented and earn windfall profits. This is what Monsanto wanted in Canada, and here in India, too. Its time now that we demand for an international law to preserve natural seeds. There are some countries like Italy who already have formulated laws banning the production of GMO seeds so that the sovereignty of choice of the people is respected", she furthers.

Coming a step further on privatization and patenting of seeds, Wangari envisions that private appropriation of seeds will spell hunger and that companies control resources through patents, the moment this control will be complete, the ones who will not be able to pay the falsely appreciated private prices will die.

When asked about her views on the controversy over SEZs in India, Mathai sited the example of her own nation where chronic underdevelopment sometimes forces the government to experiment all sorts of extortive policies. According to Mathai, there is only a thin line between development and destruction and when development is conferred to the private hands, exploitation generates and development becomes the prime mode of exploitative profit generation. "Sometimes governments have to make tough decisions for the sake of development which are often expedient on alternate parties, because ofcourse there are conflicts of interests, but the same government endlessly fails to take a tough decision in the favour of the poor, because they are vulnerable and their voices can easily be oppressed", she adds.

Drawing attention to the common problems that the developing countries are facing, Wangari expresses that to be able to exist is the major test for all the developing countries today. "Globalization has marketised the world, cut throat competitions prevail, powerful are fighting to emerge as the super powers and there is likelihood that the poor and the weak will be wiped away. To stand somewhere in the market, poor nations are compelled to depend on the developed ones for technological assistance. This makes them all the more vulnerable to be controlled. They face economic exploitation, sanctions in research and military power, and in capacity to access and control resources. Their week economic structure doesn't allow them to break away from this dependence, and the vicious circle of poverty, of widening income disparities continues. Rich get richer and poor get poorer," she takes a sigh.

She takes a sigh, but it was not a defeated one. Wangari believes in the strength of togetherness and doesn't agree that the dismal situation of economic exploitation and increasing income disparities is eternal. Her own life has been full of struggles and successes. It was while she served in the National Council of Women that she introduced the idea of planting trees with the people in 1976 and continued to develop it into a broad-based, grassroots organization whose main focus is the planting of trees with women groups in order to conserve the environment and improve their quality of life. However, through the Green Belt Movement she has assisted women in planting more than 20 million trees on their farms and on schools and church compounds. In 1986, the Movement established a Pan African Green Belt Network and has exposed over 40 individuals from other African countries to the approach. Some of these individuals have established similar tree planting initiatives in their own countries or they use some of the Green Belt Movement methods to improve their efforts. So far some countries have successfully launched such initiatives in Africa ( Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, etc). In September 1998, she launched a campaign of the Jubilee 2000 Coalition. She has embarked on new challenges, playing a leading global role as a co-chair of the Jubilee 2000 Africa Campaign, which seeks cancellation of the unpayable backlog debts of the poor countries in Africa by the year 2000. Her campaign against land grabbing and rapacious allocation of forests land has caught the limelight in the recent past.

Wangari Maathai is internationally recognized for her persistent struggle for democracy, human rights and environmental conservation. She has addressed the UN on several occasions and spoke on behalf of women at special sessions of the General Assembly for the five-year review of the earth summit. She served on the commission for Global Governance and Commission on the Future. She and the Green Belt Movement have received numerous awards, most notably The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Others include The Sophie Prize (2004), The Petra Kelly Prize for Environment (2004), The Conservation Scientist Award (2004), J. Sterling Morton Award (2004), WANGO Environment Award (2003), Outstanding Vision and Commitment Award (2002), Excellence Award from the Kenyan Community Abroad (2001), Golden Ark Award (1994), Juliet Hollister Award (2001), Jane Adams Leadership Award (1993), Edinburgh Medal (1993), The Hunger Project's Africa Prize for Leadership (1991), Goldman Environmental Prize (1991), the Woman of the World (1989), Windstar Award for the Environment (1988), Better World Society Award (1986), Right Livelihood Award (1984) and the Woman of the Year Award (1983).

For women, Wangari says "I am also a women, a black woman, and I don't think that any body could ever control and determine my ways". "Globalisation has an inherent dent of marginalisation of the incompetent, and so it can marginalise women too, if they fall easy prey. It's now our only job to explore more inside ourselves and get it patented for ourselves", she cheers.


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