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The Challenge for Africa: Kenyan Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai on Obama, Climate Change and War

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We turn now to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Kenyan environmentalist, lawmaker and civil society activist, Wangari Maathai. Her latest book, The Challenge for Africa, tackles the broad obstacles to living in peace, justice, environmental and economic security for the one billion people across the continent of Africa. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Kenyan environmentalist, lawmaker and civil society activist, Wangari Maathai. She spearheaded the struggle against state-backed deforestation and founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 in Kenya, which has planted over 45 million trees in the African country. She’s also been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and democratic development, and in 2002 she was elected to the Kenyan Parliament.

Her latest book goes beyond Kenya to tackle the broad obstacles to living in peace, justice, environmental and economic security for the one billion people across the continent of Africa. It’s called The Challenge for Africa. It was published this week. Wangari Maathai joins us now from our firehouse studio in New York.

Wangari, it’s great to be with you from Ohio.

WANGARI MAATHAI: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here, and it’s great to see you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I wanted to ask you — I haven’t talked to you since Barack Obama became president, Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan man, a man from your own country. What are your thoughts about our new president?

WANGARI MAATHAI: Well, I think that it’s a wonderful, historic period that we are living in, and President Obama has given new hope not only to the people of this great country, to which I owe a lot personally, but also to the world. And in Africa, of course, he is a great hero. Many children are being called Obama. And he is really putting on a challenge for leadership in that continent.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you know his family at all?

WANGARI MAATHAI: I know his family. I have the privilege of knowing his family. I met his father for a very, very short time in Kenya. And it’s sorry he died too young, but he has given us a great legacy in his son.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about, first, how you became an environmentalist, what first sparked you, the Green Belt Movement, and then taking that large to all of Africa, what you’re doing today?

WANGARI MAATHAI: Well, anybody who sees the film that will be showing next week on PBS called Taking Root and then reads this book, The Challenge for Africa, will see how I started, first and foremost, as a project for the National Council of Women, responding to the basic needs of women from the countryside and who were members of the National Council of Women; and how that led me into a tree-planting campaign, encouraging women to form groups; and how that led me into governance issues, when I saw that when you have a non-democratic, a non-accountable, a non-caring, a greedy government, that it is very easy to destroy the environment and to destroy the livelihoods of the very people you are leading, and then I started advocating for basic human rights; and then how that led me to deciding that maybe I should become a legislator myself; and how, in the course of all those thirty years, I have come to realize that what we need is a very holistic approach to Africans’ issues and that we need to understand that it is not one track, that there are many issues that need to be approached simultaneously, as we have tried to do in the Green Belt Movement.

AMY GOODMAN: You have written about — in Time magazine, you had an article last month — in the Los Angeles Times, rather — “Where Are Africa’s Obamas?” What do you mean?

WANGARI MAATHAI: What I was reflecting on is the fact that the Obama phenomenon is such an inspiring story in Africa, and young people and leaders in Africa are talking about Obama, are enthusiastic about Obama, are looking up to Obama, and yet they are not creating in Africa an environment, a peaceful environment, a democratic environment, a conducive environment for the little Obamas in Africa to realize their potential, because, after all, there are so many young people who were born at the same time that Obama was born.

And the challenge I was putting to the African leadership is, if this young man had grown up in this region, would he have been able to exploit his potential the way he has been able to do it in the United States of America? Does one have to go to the United States of America to experience their potential? So, in a way, I was putting a challenge to ourselves to create the kind of conducive environment where our children can experience their full potential.

AMY GOODMAN: Wangari Maathai, you have won the Nobel Peace Prize, and I was wondering about your response to President Obama escalating the war in Afghanistan. Though he did initially oppose the war in Iraq, he’s taken a different approach with Afghanistan.

WANGARI MAATHAI: Well, quite obviously, it’s always very easy to criticize from a distance and especially without the insight and the inside story. And we would want to see the war end, but we also know that the world is not as peaceful as we would want it to be. So I’m really hoping that with his commitment to end the war, that he will do whatever it takes to ensure that we have peace.

I have been encouraged by the fact that he has indicated that he wants to engage in diplomacy, he wants to reach out to the people who are seen as enemies. And I am hoping that that’s an indication that he wants to provide leadership in the world that is not aggressive, that is engaging, that is willing to listen. And I think he has been expressing that a lot as he talks to the rest of the world. And I’m hoping that the world will respond accordingly. But as I said, it’s always very easy to criticize and to take positions when you do not have the wisdom of what goes on behind the curtain.

AMY GOODMAN: What about what’s happening in your own country, Wangari Maathai? You served in Parliament. Now the — what is happening to human rights activists in Kenya?

WANGARI MAATHAI: Well, as you know, recently we have heightened our voices against the violations of human rights in Kenya and especially extra-judicial killings of members of the Mungiki sect, which have given the police an excuse to kill innocent people. And we have seen cases, clear cases, where innocent young men and women have been killed.

And we are very saddened by the fact that this is happening during the time of President Kibaki, a man who came to power promising zero tolerance to corruption, promising full rights, promising a better country, a better Kenya, a better governed country. So we — many people have been disappointed.

And as a result of that disappointment, which actually goes back to 2003, when he first refused to honor the Memorandum of Understanding, we have had so much division in the government, outside the government. And the worst part of it was when it was acted out last year in January. The escalation is still going on, and we are hoping that we can find a solution.

We have the benefit of having Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, helping us to come to the roundtable and to discuss. So, we are hopeful, but we should not be — we should not lose sight of the fact that there is a very serious undercurrent of tension and competition among politicians.

AMY GOODMAN: Wangari Maathai, with the Kyoto Protocol expiring, there’s a major climate conference, global environment conference in Sweden in December. Can you talk about the significance of this? Will you be going?

WANGARI MAATHAI: Well, I will definitely, please God, be going to Copenhagen. And my main take is to encourage governments to consider forests as part of the solution. We have been encouraged by the fact that the United States of America this time is very much on board, thanks to the position that the Obama administration has taken, and the world is encouraged.

And we hope that the third world, especially the African region, will be listened to, in terms of being assisted to protect the Congo forest. As you know, the Congo forest is the second-largest forest in the world, second only to the Amazon. And the third forest block is in Southeast Asia. And these three forests are the main three lungs of the planet. And we need to protect these forests, and others, not only because they are holding a lot of carbon, but also because they continue to fix the carbon.

I was amazed to hear that 20 percent of all the carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere comes from forest degradation and deforestation, and especially from the developing world. And, you know, those are not the areas that are sending greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We often think of the industrialized world. So it is very important for us to encourage and to persuade the world to make forest protection part of the solution, rather than abandon it and try to say that we can negotiate about it later.

AMY GOODMAN: When you started by planting trees, what is it, Wangari Maathai, that first inspired you to do this?

WANGARI MAATHAI: Well, I must say that in the very beginning I was inspired by the failed needs of the women from the countryside, who said that they needed firewood, they needed food, they needed clean drinking water, very basic needs. And when I started, I did not have an idea of a movement, let alone of an issue that would eventually become a global issue.

But once I started, I was — it’s like I opened a box that — a Pandora’s box that then showed me the interrelationship between how we manage our resources, how we manage our environment, how we share those resources, and whether we live in peace or in conflict with each other. And that really opened up a completely different way of looking at the conflicts, whether they are conflicts within the national borders or global conflicts. Wherever you look at these conflicts, we are really fighting over resources. It is either water, land, minerals, something. Somebody wants to control them. Somebody wants to be — to come in. Some people are being excluded.

And people, sooner or later, if they’re excluded, they seek justice, an economic justice, social justice, environmental justice. These are all very important rights and issues that need to be addressed if we need — or if we want to live in peace with each other, whether it is within our own communities or, as I say, across the globe.

AMY GOODMAN: Wangari Maathai, talking about global conferences, which you must spend a good deal of your life going to, the conference in Copenhagen coming up, but you were just at the International Women’s Conference in Liberia — Liberia, which also is governed by a woman president. Talk about what happened in Monrovia.

WANGARI MAATHAI: Well, actually, I was expected to be in Monrovia, but I was not able to go. But I do want to say that President Sirleaf Johnson is doing a great job. I wish she did not inherited such a devastated country, because she is having to do the basics, first and foremost. And I am hoping that she will demonstrate that with commitment, with devotion, change can be brought, even in a country like that. And I am hoping that the Liberian people will support her and they will commit themselves and try to make sure that they think about the good of the people, rather than the welfare and the glory and the privileges that come with leadership, which has often been the tragedy of Africa, where leadership forgets the people who put them there.

AMY GOODMAN: As you travel this country with your new book, your final message, Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner, environmentalist, to the people of this country, to the United States, the — consumes perhaps more than most countries in the world, far more in terms of resources?

WANGARI MAATHAI: Well, thank you very much. As I go around in this beautiful country, which I love, because many people know that I spent almost five years in this country, and I got my education, and a lot of the inspiration that continues to guide me was obtained while I was going to school in this country, is really to share my experiences with the people of this great country and to encourage them to understand Africa better, so that as they try to help and to provide their leadership in the world, they can appreciate that it is not a simple matter, it is not something that you can fix overnight, that it is a complex issue, it needs a holistic approach so that we can truly have a peaceful area.

And as we have seen, right now, as we are looking in our television and seeing the tragedies that are taking place along the eastern coast of Africa off the Somalia border, we recognize that failed states and conflicts in that part of the world, or any other part of the world, eventually come home. And so, it is in our interest to promote good governance everywhere and to ensure that human rights are respected, equity is respected, because where you have too many people who are poor and few who are rich, sooner or later, there is a conflict that may easily come knocking at our own doors.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have a suggestion for what should happen in Somalia now with the latest piracy in the high seas?

WANGARI MAATHAI: Well, we are, of course, hoping that the captain will be safe, will continue to be safe, and will be delivered to his family. And we hope that there will be a global effort to help Somalia to attain a government. We are dealing here with a failed state and a lawless state, and until we help that country, maybe through the African Union, maybe through the East African community efforts — I know that Kenya has been playing a very important role, and I know that the African Union has been very concerned. As we know, Ethiopian soldiers have just pulled out of that country. We need a much greater cooperation globally to help that country come back to normalcy and so that they can begin to function as a state. That is the only way we can deal with the pirates in that region.

AMY GOODMAN: Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner, environmentalist, thanks very much for joining us. Her new book is called The Challenge for Africa. It’s just come out this week. It’s good to have you with this. I wish I could be in the studio with you, but I’m also excited to be on this community media tour. We’re broadcasting from Ohio University.

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