You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

Unbowed: Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai on Climate Change, Wars for Resources, the Green Belt Movement and More

StoryOctober 01, 2007
Watch Full Show
Media Options

As President Bush convenes a special meeting on climate change, we speak to a woman who has been on the front lines of the popular struggle for the environment long before the current global warming crisis: Kenyan ecologist and Green Belt Movement founder, Wangari Maathai. “I would wish, especially with respect to climate change, that America would provide the leadership that is needed and not be the one that is falling behind,” Maathai said. [includes rush transcript]

Related Story

StorySep 25, 2009Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai: If US Moves Forward on Climate Change, Rest of World Will Follow
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to our second subject of the day: the environment. President Bush convened a special meeting on climate change over the weekend. The move came just days after he skipped a major U.N. summit on the subject. The meeting in Washington, D.C., was sponsored by the Bush administration and brought together 17 of the world’s leading polluters. On Friday, the president outlined his vision of dealing with global warming on an individual and voluntary basis.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Our guiding principle is clear: We must lead the world to produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and we must do it in a way that does not undermine economic growth or prevent nations from delivering of greater prosperity for their people. Each nation will design its own separate strategies for making progress toward achieving this long-term goal. These strategies will reflect each country’s different energy resources, different stages of development and different economic needs.

AMY GOODMAN: But the Bush administration’s voluntary approach to tackling global warming received little support. The U.S. position was isolated, as European, Chinese and Indian diplomats all questioned Bush’s leadership on climate change. Even as the Bush administration continued to reject mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions, other countries called for more binding measures.

Last week, I spoke to a woman who has been on the front lines of the popular struggle for the environment long before the current global warming crisis. She began fighting state-backed deforestation in the '70s by spearheading a grassroots movement to plant and care for trees. Now she is calling on people around the world to plant a billion trees in the next year and get involved in the fight against climate change. Her lifelong activism was recognized in 2004, when she became the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize. I'm talking about Kenyan ecologist and founder of the Green Belt Movement, Wangari Maathai.

She was in the United States to mark the publication of her memoir. It’s called Unbowed. It tells the story of Maathai’s journey from rural Kenya to the international stage.

Wangari Maathai was in Seattle when I spoke to her from our studio B. I began by asking her to describe the impact of global warming on Africa.

WANGARI MAATHAI: Well, global warming will impact Africa very seriously. We are already beginning to see some signs, such as the disappearance of ice and snow on Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro; the drying up of some rivers; and prolonged droughts that cause a lot of havoc, especially to pastoral communities who keep livestock; also receding of water in many lakes, especially in the Great Rift Valley.

Now, I want to hasten — to add that there is a very thin line between what may be caused by deforestation, de-vegetation and general misuse of the environment and, of course, the impact of global warming. But in long term, the impact of global warming will be only enhancing these initial signs that we see in Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the Green Belt Movement?

WANGARI MAATHAI: The Green Belt Movement is a grassroots organization that focuses on planting trees and practicing primarily environmental care to the land in order to ensure that the land becomes sustainable and supports a livelihood of communities. So it is not only an organization that takes action, but it’s also an organization that teaches, that empowers, the raises awareness on the need for each individual to work with nature, to work with the environment, and to help the environment sustain the current livelihood, and, of course, to support the livelihood of the generations to come. So we work largely with women. We also work with men. But we are also very focused on children.

AMY GOODMAN: The Green Belt Movement is very closely identified with women. Why, in particular, women?

WANGARI MAATHAI: When one reads the book that I’m partly here to promote, Unbowed, you would see that the initial idea came to me as we were preparing to go to Mexico in 1975 to the first United Nations conference on women. Also, in East Africa, it is the women who actually work on the land. They fetch firewood, they fetch water. So women are very close to the primary natural resources. And in the mid-’70s, there was a clear sign that there was very serious environmental degradation, and that is why the women, we are lacking some of these primary resources. And so, we said, “Let us try to restore some of these resources by planting trees, to protect the soil, to protect the forest, to protect waters, and especially rivers.” And so the Green Belt Movement was actually inspired by rural women who were preparing to bring their problems to the world stage in Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: And how large has it grown?

WANGARI MAATHAI: Well, while starting very, very small, the Green Belt Movement has expanded not only within Kenya and within Africa, but to many other parts of the world. And in a big way, it has inspired ordinary people to do something about their immediate environment, by doing what is doable, what can be supported by the economic situation and the knowledge situation of communities, to encourage communities not to feel powerless within their own environment, but to feel that they can help the environment around them to sustain itself and, in the process, sustain them. I think this is the biggest message of the Green Belt Movement: empowering local communities so that they do not wait for the local authorities, wait for the government, wait for development agencies, but to encourage people to take action, no matter how small that action may be, including a small action like planting a tree and making sure is survives, or protecting a standing tree.

AMY GOODMAN: How does your environmental activism, Wangari Maathai, fit in with your political activism? You were imprisoned a number of times under the dictatorship, the regime of President Daniel arap Moi. You demanded multiparty elections. You stopped a building complex from going up, a skyscraper, the 60-story Kenya Times Media Trust business complex. Talk about each of these actions. Talk about nonviolent civil disobedience.

WANGARI MAATHAI: Well, actually, the message we have brought to the world and the message that actually encouraged the Nobel Peace Prize to give us the prize in the year 2004 was that we were able to show the linkage between the way we manage our resources, whether we manage them sustainably or in an unsustainable way, also the way we govern ourselves, whether we respect human rights of each other, whether we respect the rule of law, and whether we promote justice, fairness and equity.

These issues are very interrelated, because if we do not manage our resources responsibly and accountably, it means we allow corruption, we allow a few individuals to benefit from these resources, to enrich themselves, and at the expense of the majority of the people. And eventually, the majority of the people, who are left behind, who are not included, who are excluded, become very poor, and they will eventually react. And their reaction will threaten our peace and security.

And it is for this — it is with this understanding, for this reason, that I eventually, and the members of the Green Belt Movement, found ourselves not only planting trees, but also promoting respect for human rights, respect for the rule of law, demanding a clean and healthy environment, demanding that in cities especially you need open green spaces for the betterment of the quality of life.

And so, while the tree planting campaign itself was a very benign and a very apolitical activity, ensuring that governments respect the space, respect the human rights of everybody in the society, it became necessary for us to become engaged positively with good — as such, for good governance. And that meant that we have to resist violation of human rights, that we have to resist violation of our environmental rights, such as taking green open spaces and putting buildings there, such as deforesting our forests when we know that in order for us to get clean drinking water, in order for us to continue enjoying fresh air, clean air, we need those forests, we need those trees. So preventing greedy, corrupt, irresponsible leaders from accessing these resources and privatizing them, it became necessary for us to join in the pro-democracy movement of Kenya.

And for many people, the linkage between democracy, sustainable management of resources, equity, justice, fairness and peace was not very clear. But I think that in the year 2004, very much basing the decision on our work in Kenya, the Norwegian Nobel Committee saw the linkage, as brought about together by our work, and so they give the prize and, in the process, challenged the world to see the connection, to see the linkage of governance, sustainable management of resources, equity and peace. And that holistic approach was extremely important, a really — a very strong idea that we had brought to the fore and which the Norwegian Nobel Committee wanted the world to embrace. And, in fact, it’s the message that we are trying to pass to the world to encourage the world, whether it is at the local level or regional level, or even at the global level, to encourage the world that these three are very linked, and they are very basic principles for the stability and the peace and security of any nation.

AMY GOODMAN: Wangari Maathai, were you surprised when you won the Nobel Peace Prize? Where were you?

WANGARI MAATHAI: Well, when I was called by the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, I was actually on my way to my constituency. It was a Friday, and I usually spend weekends in my constituency.

And I was very surprised, partly because, as we all know, it was the first time that the Norwegian Nobel Committee focused on the environment. In the past, it had focused on other issues. In the very beginning, it focused on people who went to the battlefield and collected bodies of the dead and the wounded and took care of them or buried the bodies with the respect that deserves a human being. Other — later on, they focused on people who separated warring countries, warring factions, and brought them to the negotiating table to agree to stop fighting and to stop killing each other. Much later, they started focusing on people who focused on human rights, recognized the fact that if you have states or governments not respecting the rule of law, respecting human rights, it is very easy for us not to have security or peace. And so, people like Martin Luther King, people like Mandela, were respected for this great work.

And then, in the year 2004, the committee decided that the time had come for the environment. And so, it was the first time. So everybody was surprised. And I remember the very first questions were: What is the connection between trees and peace? And it has given me a great and wonderful forum to be able to show that indeed there is a link between the environment, which is symbolized here by the tree, and the way we govern ourselves and the way we manage the resources and the way we share these resources. This is a very new message that the world needs to embrace, because when we have a critical mass of people and governments who understand this, then we shall deliberately and consciously work for these three to be consciously cultivated, so as to promote, indirectly promote, the peace by preempting the causes of conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: Wangari Maathai, your thoughts on the war in Iraq?

WANGARI MAATHAI: Well, I think that all of us are very saddened by the war in Iraq, because we did not think that it would last this long and that we would lose as many people as we have lost. Obviously, our sympathies go to the soldiers who are losing their lives every day and to the many civilians in Iraq who are losing their lives every day. And we certainly pray that, sooner than later, this war will come to an end and that our governments, wherever they are, will find other ways of resolving conflicts in the world besides going to war.

And in Africa, in particular, I know we have many wars. We have a war in Darfur. We have wars in many other countries like the Congo, in West Africa, in Somalia right now. We are still having these wars. And these wars, when you look at all of them, you realize that they are all about resources. It’s the question of who is going to control the resources in this country, who is going to be included, who is going to be excluded, who is going to be in charge of these resources.

I think that if we would get the message that the Norwegian Nobel Committee gave us in the year 2004, we would sit back and rethink again: Isn’t there another way of managing these resources, of sharing these resources, of being more inclusive, of allowing everybody to play a part to benefit, so that we do not have to fight and kill each other, so that we can have the supreme control of these resources?

For as long as we think that way, we will have wars. And Iraq, of course, is only one of the many wars going on in the world. We can stop these wars when we start organizing ourselves differently, managing these resources differently, governing ourselves differently and listening to the voices of citizens. I know that even as we went to war in Iraq, many people in this country and in many other parts of the world pleaded for patience, for waiting, for discussion, for dialogue. We lost. But we must continue to urge our governments to find better ways of managing the conflict over resources.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll be back with Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue our conversation with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai. I asked her to talk about Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s visit to Kenya, where his father was born.

WANGARI MAATHAI: Well, of course, Kenya is very excited about his candidacy, and when he came to Kenya, he was very warmly received. People loved him. And we had a wonderful opportunity with him to plant a tree at Freedom Corner, which for us was very significant, because that corner symbolizes our campaign for the reintroduction of a multiparty democracy and greater democratic space in Kenya. And, of course, we are hoping that he has a very good chance to win.

We know that there are very wonderful candidates. As a woman, of course, we are also very excited about Hillary Clinton. So we are really kind of torn apart, because we are — in a way, we have two very exciting candidates: one in — one who is connected to our country, and the other who is, of course, a great inspiration for women. So we are looking forward very much to see how the two of them will feature. I wish there was a way that we could have the two of them, and that would be a very exciting combination in the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think is the most important qualities for a president of the United States, and how does that position affect your life, affect the life of the people of Kenya, of Africa?

WANGARI MAATHAI: Well, of course, because the United States of America is a superpower, continues to have great influence throughout the world, its decisions, its values, its attitude towards the world is extremely important. And the decisions that are made in Washington affect the rest of the world.

We in Africa have been very, very keen on the United States of America being sensitive to the issues of Africa. Especially, we have raised the issue of debt for many years. We have also raised the issue of the protection of our environment, and especially the protection of the Congo forest. I’m particularly keen on this forest, because it’s not only important to Africa, but also important to the world with respect to climate change. And I know that the United States government is interested in this forest, as well as in the Amazon and other forests in Southeast Asia. And I would wish, and especially with respect to climate change, that America would provide the leadership that is needed and that she would not be the one falling behind, because her attitude towards climate change and towards what we can do to mitigate the impact, the negative impact, of climate change, especially in Africa, is very important.

I was very encouraged by the discussions in Germany recently, because I felt like the leadership in America was changing its position about climate change. And I know that the chancellor of Germany has been very vocal in favor of taking the right actions against the negative impacts of climate change. So I really look forward to the United States continuing this engagement and providing the leadership that is necessary, because what she does influences the reaction of other governments in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Wangari Maathai, you signed onto a letter signed by a number of women Nobel Peace Prize winners, condemning the Iraq oil law that the Iraqi parliament has yet to sign, though the Bush administration has been pressing them hard to do that, also opposing the decision of the U.S. government to require the Iraqi government to pass the oil law as a condition of continued reconstruction. The letter ends by saying, “It is immoral and illegal to use war and invasion as mechanisms for robbing a people of their vital natural resources,” signed by Shirin Ebadi, Betty Williams, Mairead Maguire, Professor Jody Williams, and you, Professor Wangari Maathai. Can you elaborate on this?

WANGARI MAATHAI: I think that our position as peace laureates is that, as I have explained — and this is particularly relevant to me as a person who connects peace, good governance, and the right management of resources — is that our advocacy has always been that for us to be able to enjoy peace, it is very important for us to recognize the rights of people to manage their resources, the rights of people to be given an opportunity to say what they would like to do with their resources, the principle of equity to be practiced, especially by those who have the power to say no, but who are moved or who are guided by the principle of fairness and justice.

And it is in that context that we were appealing to the U.S. government to practice justice and fairness and to allow for inclusivity as they try to bring peace to that war-torn country and to recognize that until people feel that they are included, people feel that they are not being excluded, whether people feel that their resources are being used for the benefit of their people, that they are not being stripped of their resources, that that moving in that direction is a better way of seeking peace, because as long as people feel like they’re being exploited, that they’re being denied access to their resources, then, of course, they will react, and sometimes they react in a way that threatens peace and security, not only where they are, but indeed in the whole world.

AMY GOODMAN: Wangari Maathai, you’re used to taking on presidents, corporations, anyone that you feel is in the way of environmental justice and peace. Your thoughts on corporations like ExxonMobil, the wealthiest on earth, that has poured millions into think tanks to deny that global warming really is caused by human beings? Your thoughts?

WANGARI MAATHAI: Well, I guess, as a company that was benefiting from fossil fuels throughout the world, I guess they would feel like they need to protect their position. And, of course, for most of us, we rely very heavily on those who are doing research and those who have the knowledge, particularly the scientists. And as long as the scientists were not fully convinced that global warming is being caused by human activities, there were those who listened to arguments that we did not have enough scientific data to convince us that indeed it is our own activities that is causing global warming.

But I think that last March, this year, when the scientists finally brought out their report and said that they were certain, up to 90 percent-plus certain, that it is our activities that are causing global warming, that I think that it is unjustifiable for anybody to try to change that position, because the scientists don’t have any interest. And it is over 2,000 scientists who were engaged for a very long period of time with the research and information that they were able to compile and show us that, indeed, the industrialization of countries using fossil fuels has indeed contributed to the release of greenhouse gases that are causing the global warming.

So, I hope that a company like Mobil, which has benefited so immensely from these resources from many parts of the world, that they will embrace the principle that the United Nations Environment Programme advocates, which says polluter pays, that this company will invest, especially in the countries where they have caused a lot of environmental degradation and misery to millions of people, so that they can repay in a little way by investing in rehabilitation of such environments, cleaning up of such environments, and improving the quality of life of people who have suffered because of the processes of extraction of these resources from the earth. And I hope that in the future, they will not see the need to deny what scientists have said conclusively and for the benefit of the whole world.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, as you travel around this country, the United States, Wangari Maathai, what you feel is the most important message?

WANGARI MAATHAI: Well, I must say that every time I travel in this country of the U.S., I am very encouraged, not only by the reaction of citizens, cities’ mayors, states’ governors, but also by the fact that this is a country that has a strong civil society, populations that are willing to get out there and do something about their environment.

This morning, I had a wonderful experience here in Seattle, Washington. We went to a small avenue here with kids from local schools and with the mayor, the local mayor, and we were planting trees in a little groove where there were some big trees, but we were planting some small trees with the children. It is that kind of activity, where the mayor, the local populations, and the children come together to do something that simple, but which demonstrates the dynamism, the commitment and the energy of the people of the United States of America.

And even before, when people would tell me that we need to do something about the fact that America had not yet signed the Kyoto Protocol, I used to say, “I’m not too worried about the fact that the government has not signed the Kyoto Protocol. I’m much more encouraged by the activities of ordinary citizens in America, those who are changing their bulbs and using bulbs that are saving energy, those who are deciding not to drive a car unless they have to, because they want to reduce the amount of fossil fuel and the amount of greenhouse gases that they dump in the atmosphere, those who are making those small actions, like those children this morning planting trees.” That’s what makes the difference.

And you will remember that recently the United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi and the International Center for Agroforestry, which is also based in Nairobi, and the Green Belt Movement launched the Global Billion Tree Campaign, trying to encourage the whole world to plant trees. Now, it is not so much what the billion trees can do that was the important message. More important was the message of: Get involved! Don’t just sit and complain; get involved! Be part of the solution and do the doables, like planting a tree in your own compound.

AMY GOODMAN: Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner. Her memoir is called Unbowed. She was in the United States from Kenya.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai: If US Moves Forward on Climate Change, Rest of World Will Follow

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation