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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Remembering Wangari Maathai

Air Date: Week of

Kenyan scientist Wangari Maathai, revered for her environmental and human rights work in Africa, has passed away at 71. She was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, the first woman in eastern Africa to hold a doctorate, and the visionary behind the Green Belt movement that pays women to plant trees across Kenya. Host Bruce Gellerman and Steve Curwood look back at Living on Earth’s conversations with the visionary woman who helped plant millions of trees.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Wangari Maathai was a force of nature. The environmental activist, politician, feminist, scientist and human rights advocate was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize - that was back in 2004 for "her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

Born in the central highlands of Kenya, Wangari Maathai died on September 25th. She was 71. Archbishop Desmond Tutu called her “a true African heroine.” Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood met and spoke with Wangari Maathai many times over the years, and Steve joins me in the studio. So, Steve, what was she really like?

CURWOOD: In a word, Bruce: amazing. I mean here was a woman that had tremendous demands on her, huge ambitions, and yet she was so humble. She would take the time to get something right. We interviewed her a number of times, as you noted, and she’d always stick around to answer that last question - whatever you needed to get the story right.

I remember there was a documentary that we did, and in it we noted a UN study that found only some nine trees were being re-planted in Africa for every 100 that were being cut down. So we had this scene where Wangari Maathai goes to the UN headquarters in New York with a shovel to plant a tree.


MAATHAI: When God created the earth, he covered it the way it is here. The soil is supposed to be covered in its green color. When you see the soil, it is crying to be clothed with green vegetation. That’s the nature of the land. So, when the soil is exposed, in many ways, it is crying out for help - it is naked - and it needs to be clothed. It needs color. It needs cloth of green. That is where the concept of the Green Belt Movement came from. It is to clothe the earth with her dress.

CURWOOD: Bruce, another word to describe Wangari Maathai: ambitious. Like, how about her goal to plant a billion trees? Oh yeah.

When I spoke to her in 2007, she'd published her autobiography: "Unbowed: A Memoir." And when we spoke, she talked about starting the Green Belt Movement some 30 years earlier. Now this movement encouraged women to plant trees as a means of improving their lives, and preserving the environment, and empowering themselves. And at the time we talked, that group had already, by itself, planted some 30 million trees.

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons; E Pants)

MAATHAI: (Laughs). Yeah, we are still planting. It is very important for people to understand that we are dealing with a region and a continent that is greatly deforested. Ah, and it needs literally millions and millions of trees, and mobilization of as many hands as can possibly be found.
Especially, now that the scientists are telling us with more certainty that the climate change is indeed happening. It’s very, very important for us to plant trees as well as protect the trees that are standing, because these are our friends - they help us fix the carbon that is now in the atmosphere.

CURWOOD: When you received the Nobel Peace Prize you got one of those very famous phone calls, ah, from Norway. What was just about the first thing you did after you got that phone call?

MAATHAI: I was so overwhelmed. I was literally out of myself, tears rolling down my cheeks, unbelieving. And I happened to be at this site where I was facing Mount Kenya, and for generations of past for my people this mountain was a holy mountain.

And it was one of the mountains that we had been trying to save from deforestation. So I was extremely overwhelmed, and I immediately dug a hole and planted a Nandi Flame.

CURWOOD: The Nandi Flame tree, this is the bright orange flowering tree?

MAATHAI: Yeah, it’s a tree that is, ah, it grows quite tall. And at the top, when it has flowers, they are red hot. So, from a distance, the tree looks like it is aflame. That’s why I guess the English, when they first saw the tree, they called it Nandi Flame.

CURWOOD: Now, being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along the way you wound up in jail, not once, not twice, but several times, all because, what? You were planting trees? Why were you jailed for planting trees?

MAATHAI: Well, the jailing was not because of planting trees per se. It was because in the course of planting trees, in the course of mobilizing women, in the course of creating networks of women to plant trees, it had become necessary to also give them information on how the environment is destroyed sometimes by the state.
And it became necessary for us to raise our voices and tell the government that it was not managing those resources responsibly. Ah, and it was while we were doing this that we got arrested. The actual planting of trees would have been alright.
But it would have been completely nonsensical for us to be planting trees on one side and other people are cutting them on the other. So we decided to protect the standing trees and especially forests, which also serve as the water catchment areas for millions of people who live around the mountains.

CURWOOD: Now it’s not easy for women anywhere on the planet, but I don’t know if people understand how difficult it is to be an outspoken woman in East Africa, or was. You, uh, were the first woman of color to have a PhD in Central and East Africa as I understand it.

Wangari Maathai with then-Senator Barack Obama in Nairobi, Kenya. August 2006. (Wikipedia Creative Commons; Fredrick Onyango)

MAATHAI: Yes indeed. It’s always very difficult to be a pioneer. And women, I guess, have been pioneering for a long time trying to break the barriers of discrimination and denial of capacity to exploit our potential. And going to school for me was breaking one of those barriers.

Getting to high school, coming to America and attending college, going home and registering for a PhD; all these were breaking barriers. And sometimes when you are breaking barriers, some people will applaud you, but some people want to discourage you because they think you are breaking those barriers that should not be broken, because people want to fix you in a box.

CURWOOD: Now, despite your fame and success, the Green Belt Movement has subsisted on, well, you don’t have a whole lot of money. There are times when, what? You don’t have enough money to buy the plastic tubes that your volunteers use for stuffing in soil and seedlings. You don’t have that basic item to accommodate everyone who wants to plant trees.

MAATHAI: Yes. That has always been our challenge, from the very beginning. And we hope that, at least now, that our work has been validated that we would receive the support we need. Right now, as I speak, our biggest challenge is office space so that we can expand, because there is so much demand for us, both locally and globally.

CURWOOD: I know one area where you’ve been raising awareness, uh, is the importance of the vast tropical rainforest in Africa’s Congo Basin, which is so much less known than the Amazon rainforest. How’s that going?

MAATHAI: That’s going very well. And I’m very very happy that the climate change discussion is gaining momentum. And people are recognizing that one of the ways in which we can help the planet is by planting trees, but also by protecting the trees that are standing.

So, I hope that governments that have money will help the African governments so that they can protect that forest from logging. Because it’s also important to say that the logging is not being done by local people. The logging of these forests is usually done by big timber companies from developed countries.

So, considering that it is the developed countries that have contributed so much to the greenhouse gasses that are causing the warming up of the earth, it is only appropriate that they too should participate in assisting governments, not only to stop the logging, but to help with the rehabilitation of the logged areas.

CURWOOD: I want to mention something personal to you. I live in New Hampshire and it’s an old, old house - 250 years old - and there’s a sugar maple - there’s a bunch of sugar maples that were planted probably not long after the house was built - and one of them has run out of time. It’s probably 175 years old. The wires that have been holding it together, and the other efforts that have been made to keep it going - just nothing more can be done. And it has to come down. In fact, I think it’s going to come down tomorrow.

MAATHAI: I’m so sorry to hear that. But it also means that we understand that all living things come to an end. And the only thing we can say is that after so many years of service that tree is ready to be recycled. How wonderful it would be if all of us would be recycled when our time comes, and we would be able to say, like that tree, “I have done my part.”



Share your condolences and read them from people around the world

Part I: How to Get 100 Thousand Poor People to Plant Trees

Part II: More Than Trees

Part III: Soldier Planters, River Keeper Children and Green Belt's Future

Wangari Maathai: A Watering Can, Some Seedlings, and the Greening of a Nation


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