Environmental responsibility is social responsibility—Wangari Maathai
Inseparable — how we treat the environment, how we treat each other
By Carolyn Bennett
Hers was a holistic approach embracing democracy, human rights, and particularly women’s rights. She combined science, social commitment, and active politics. More than simply protecting the existing environment, her strategy was to secure and strengthen the foundation of ecological sustainability.
Wangari Maathai won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize and the press sneered. They sneered because Wangari Maathai was a woman and fit none of the Western male supremacist stereotypes of woman. The press sneered because Wangari Maathai was an independent woman’s rights feminist woman. They sneered because she was a black African Ph.D., Professor, Member of Parliament, Minister-for-Environment woman. The press sneered because Wangari Maathai was an environmentalist, biologist, scientist, and a peace, justice, democracy, human rights worker— not unlike [the United States of America’s] own Fannie Lou Hamer — who had endured great suffering while working in the causes of peace and justice and democracy and human rights. She endured for the great and global cause of life on planet Earth.
Wangari Maathai’s great contribution was to make the connection between the life of forests and the life of humankind — to see justice and injustice, war and peace in the connection — and to devote her life to the struggle for life. She planted trees. Millions of them and led a reforesting movement.
If deforestation (cutting down trees, commercial logging, clear cutting, burning and damaging forests) continues at the rate it’s going, the world’s rain forests will vanish within 100 years, said a NASA report. The majority of the planet’s plant and animal species will die. ‘When a forest is cut and burned to establish crop land and pastures,’ the Earth Observatory report said, ‘the carbon that was stored in the tree trunks ... joins with oxygen and is released into the atmosphere. .... From 1850 to 1990, deforestation worldwide (including the United States) released 122 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, with the current rate being approximately 1.6 billion metric tons per year.’ Fossil fuel burning (coal, oil and gas) releases 6 billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere annually. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ‘enhances greenhouse effect and could contribute to an increase in global temperatures.’
All life needs trees. ‘Trees protect the soil against erosion and reduce the risks of landslides and avalanches,’ Stephen Hui reminds us in a 1997 article ‘Deforestation: Humankind and the global ecological crisis.’ Trees help to sustain freshwater supplies, he says, and therefore are an important factor in the availability of one of life’s basic needs. Forests affect the climate and are an important source of oxygen. ‘Humankind is the cause of deforestation,’ he says, and humankind can cure it.
Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize because she put her back to the wheel of reforestation by planting and leading communities in planting millions of trees in Africa. She won it because she used her mind to make the connection between forests and peace, justice and life; between deforestation and war, poverty and death — taking particular toll on women and children of Kenya, of Africa, of the world.
Interviewed on Democracy Now shortly after the announcement of the peace prize, Environmental author Terry Tempest Williams said, ‘Wangari Maathai was the first of the global leaders to say the health of our communities is the health of the planet. She said that environmental responsibility is social responsibility. She was one of the first global leaders decades ago to say that there is no separation between how we treat the environment and how we treat each other.’
A butterfly flutters its wings on an East African coast, and winds, great storms touch down in North America. Great forests fall to rubber plantations, corporate cattle farms, massive Agri-businesses and logging capitalists; flood waters rise, mud slides rush down slopes, waters run through streets wiping out cities and towns, clapboard houses, trailers of poorer people, mansions of the rich, carbon coughing SUVs of the careless.
In richer countries taxpayers pay for cities and states declared states of emergency. Taxes fund shelters — for people made homeless by storms, for merchants who lose their places of business, for businesses whose payouts exceed projected loss.
In poorer countries (and in sectors of rich countries), there is no such luck. As people suffer one after another storm, the effects worsened by deforestation, their debt to developed countries such as the United States rises. To pay down the debt, they sell off their forests and other resources sustaining double, deepening loss — often poverty in perpetuity. More hurricanes come. This is a simplified case of Haiti and corporate rubber (or robber) barons. Poor Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. With corporate greed, rising debt, great storms, foreigners (government, nongovernmental individuals and groups, profit and nonprofit coalitions and corporations) constantly meddling in domestic sovereignty, creating and perpetuating civil chaos (as in Afghanistan and Iraq), Haiti has broken down completely.
A BBC report in late September  said the storm called Jeanne caused a thousand deaths and left tens of thousands of Haitians without food and water. Behind Haiti’s stream of natural disasters — ‘Environmental destruction and lack of economic development,’ the report said. Not only is Haiti one of the poorest, it is one of the most densely populated and most deforested countries on Earth. Lacking peaceful, unconditional human assistance, Haiti is destroyed over and over again.
Iraq and Afghanistan suffer a similar fate of plunder, devastation and debt. An article published [in 2003] by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting said since the start of the war in Afghanistan, forests have been depleted by a third because people had to have firewood for cooking and heating. ‘War, illegal hunting, deforestation and drought combined with grinding poverty,’ Rahimullah Samander wrote, ‘have had a disastrous effect on Afghanistan’s wildlife, pushing some species to the verge of extinction.’
A sneering press asks no questions about environmental, including wildlife destruction and devastated human lives. Where is the peace and justice in this? No peace. No justice. No future for families and children. Only war and death.
Wangari Maathai [was] an environmentalist/peacemaker, advocate for justice. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctoral degree. She also earned honorary doctoral degrees, including one from Hobart & William Smith Colleges in Western New York. She was born in Nyeri, Kenya, and to celebrate winning the peace prize, she planted a tree on nearby Mount Kenya. She [led] the world in the struggle for environmental conservation, democracy and human rights. From the 1970s, Wangari Maathai planted trees and led communities and movements in planting more than 20 million trees in Africa.
Terry Tempest Williams concluded her interview with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez that year saying that Wangari Maathai is a woman ‘who risked everything for the environment’; that her whole life [was] ‘a gesture of deep bows to women and children in the earth.’ The Nobel committee’s recognition of Maathai as peacemaker, Williams said, gives new meaning to peace.
In announcing the Nobel committee’s decision to award the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize to Wangari Maathai, some of what the head of the Norwegian Nobel committee said [reprinted at Democracy Now.org] was that Wangari Maathai ‘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 combines science, social commitment, and active politics. More than simply protecting the existing environment, her strategy is to secure and strengthen the very basis for ecologically sustainable development.’
Wangari Maathai was important among world leaders because, unlike many contemporary leaders, she looked at what is happening today and saw continuing consequences way down the road, far into the future. She saw the interlocking nature and impact of scientific, human and natural variables on human life all over the world. She used her entire human powers to address and correct the problems.
This week, the world lost a truly great leader. Professor Wangari Maathai died Sunday in Nairobi, Kenya. As reported at Al Africa referencing officials at her Greenbelt Movement organization, “The environmentalist and politician died at the Nairobi Hospital at around 10 p.m. on Sunday.”
We owe immeasurable gratitude to Wangari Muta Maathai for dedicating her life to saving ours.
Sources and notes
This main entry is the edited text of an article I wrote and published at http://hometown.aol.com/cwriter85/index.html on October 13, 2004: “Wangari Maathai makes environment, peace connection”
“Kenya: Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai Dies in Nairobi —Prof Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace laureate and conservation heroine, has died in Nairobi after a long battle with cancer. She was 71. The environmentalist and politician died at the Nairobi Hospital at around 10 p.m. on Sunday, officials at her Greenbelt Movement organization told Nation.co.ke.,” September 26, 2011, Daily Nation on the Web, http://allafrica.com/stories/201109260014.html
BRITANNICA NOTE (edited)
Born April 1, 1940 in Nyeri, Kenya [d. September 25, 2011, Nairobi, Kenya], Wangari Muta Maathai was a Kenyan politician and environmental activist whose work her country often considered “unwelcome and subversive,” her outspokenness as “stepping far outside traditional gender roles.”
While working with the National Council of Women of Kenya, Wangari Maathai developed the idea that village women could improve the environment by planting trees to provide a fuel source and to slow the processes of deforestation and desertification.
She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977. By the early 21st century, the organization had planted some 30 million trees. Leaders of the Green Belt Movement established the Pan African Green Belt Network in 1986 in order to educate world leaders about conservation and environmental improvement. Resulting from the movement’s activism, similar initiatives started in other African countries — among them Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe.
In addition to her conservation work, Maathai was also an advocate for human rights, AIDS prevention, and women’s issues. She frequently represented these concerns at meetings of the United Nations General Assembly. In 2002, she took 98 percent of the vote in her successful election to Kenya’s National Assembly. In 2003, she accepted an appointment as assistant minister of environment, natural resources, and wildlife.
Receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2004, Wangari Maathai became the first black African woman recipient of the award.
As author, her works include The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience (1988; rev. ed. 2003); her autobiography Unbowed (in 2007); The Challenge for Africa (2009) in which she criticizes Africa’s leadership and urges Africans to try to solve their problems without Western assistance.
Wangari Maathai took her Ph.D. at the University of Nairobi (1971), becoming the first woman in either East or Central Africa to earn a doctoral degree. After graduation, she began teaching in the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi. In 1977, she became chair of the department. Her earlier academic studies were in the United States: Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College (B.S. in biology, 1964); the University of Pittsburgh (Master of Science, 1966).
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