Genius Of Wangari Maathai
By Anna Lappé
and Frances Moore Lappé
prominent Norwegians have questioned the Nobel Committee for awarding
the Nobel Peace Prize to Wangari Maathai. Why honor environmental activism
in an era when war, terrorism and nuclear proliferation are even more
What they miss is
Dr. Maathai's special genius.
The first time we
met Maathai was four years ago in an airy guesthouse beneath towering
jacaranda trees on the outskirts of Nairobi. At the time, the Green
Belt Movement she had founded nearly 25 years earlier was still struggling
against the ruthless regime of President Daniel arap Moi.
seven trees on Earth Day in 1977 to honor Kenyan women environmental
leaders. Then, recognizing that deforestation could only be reversed
if village women throughout her country became tree planters themselves,
she launched the Green Belt Movement. Government foresters laughed at
her idea of enlisting villagers; it took trained foresters to plant
trees, they told her.
didn't listen, today Kenya has 30 million more trees, all planted by
is in recognizing the interrelation of local and global problems, and
the fact that they can only be addressed when citizens find the voice
and courage to act. Maathai saw in the Green Belt Movement both a good
in itself, and a way in which women could discover they were not powerless
in the face of autocratic husbands, village chiefs and a ruthless president.
Through creating their own tree nurseries - at least 6,000 throughout
Kenya - and planting trees, women began to control the supply of their
own firewood, an enormous power shift that also freed up time for other
Then, through popular
education, village women - who had watched public forests be used by
the Moi regime to grant political favors - began to see forests differently,
as something they, as citizens, had a claim to.
Through the Green
Belt Movement, village women also came to see that a narrow focus on
export commodities, such as coffee, at the expense of environmentally
appropriate food crops, was an inheritance of colonialism reinforced
by IMF policies.
That, too, they
Through a village
food-security campaign, Green Belt members are learning to re-establish
indigenous crops using organic methods and to reintroduce kitchen gardens
- a skill many had lost in the wake of government-promoted export-oriented
Over the years,
Maathai and members of the Movement have been jailed and even beaten
for their protests of government anti-environment actions. One of the
movement's organic-farming educators described to us how he was almost
arrested for promoting sustainable agriculture. The government, it turned
out, had lucrative contracts with major chemical agriculture companies;
the teachers' education posed a serious threat.
Maathai has also
become a leader in international debt-relief efforts. By the time we
traveled to Kenya in 2000, the Green Belt Movement had grown into a
major pro-democracy force.
In 2002, Maathai
decided to run for a seat in Parliament. She beat her opponent 50 to
1. Women, we were told, danced in the streets of Nairobi for joy. A
few weeks later, when President arap Moi stepped down after holding
power for more than two decades, Maathai was appointed deputy minister
of the environment.
We last saw Maathai
in May this year at a gathering in New York. She said she was helping
write a new constitution for Kenya. "We are working on a Bill of
Rights, only ours," she said, with her irrepressible grin, "will
include rights not only for human beings, but for animals and the environment."
We recalled our
time in Kenya where we saw many village women wearing a Green Belt Movement
T-shirt. The T-shirt says simply, "As for me, I've made a choice."
In selecting Dr. Maathai, perhaps the Nobel Committee wants us to recognize
that the real hope for peace, both with each other and with the earth
itself, lies in the choices - individual and collective - of empowered
Bringing this insight
to life is Wangari Maathai's genius.
© 2004 International