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Nobel Peace Prize, Right Livelihood Winner Wangari Maathai (1940-2011)

StorySeptember 29, 2011
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The Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, died on Sunday at the age of 71 after a battle with cancer. In 1977, she spearheaded the struggle against state-backed deforestation in Kenya and founded the Green Belt Movement, which has planted tens of millions of trees in the country. She has also been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and democratic development. In 1984 ,she won the Right Livelihood Award. Twenty years later, she won the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first African woman to do so. We air excerpts of her 2009 interview on Democracy Now! and of her 2004 speech when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: The winners of the 2011 Right Livelihood Awards were announced earlier today. They are Chinese solar power pioneer Huang Ming; Jacqueline Moudeina, a human rights activist from Chad; the American midwifery educator Ina May Gaskin; and the Spanish-based farming nonprofit GRAIN. The Right Livelihood Awards are awarded annually and are widely known as the Alternative Nobel Prize.

Well, earlier this week, one of the best-known past winners of the Right Livelihood Award, the Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, passed away. She died on Sunday at the age of 71 after a battle with cancer. She died in Kenya. In 1977, she spearheaded the struggle against state-backed deforestation in Kenya and founded the Green Belt Movement, which has planted tens of millions of trees in the country and around the world. She has also been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and democratic development. In 1984, she won the Right Livelihood Award. Twenty years later, she won the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first African woman to do so.

Over the past seven years, Wangari Maathai has appeared on Democracy Now! numerous times. I want to turn now to an interview from 2009. I asked her how she became an environmentalist and why she formed the Green Belt Movement.

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, 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: 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: The late Wangari Maathai, speaking on Democracy Now! in 2009. The Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner died Sunday at the age of 71. I want to end today’s show with an excerpt from her 2004 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, when she became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

WANGARI MAATHAI: As I was growing up, I witnessed forests being cleared and replaced by commercial plantations, which destroyed local biodiversity and the capacity of forests to conserve water. Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, in 1977, when we started the Green Belt Movement, I was partly responding to the needs identified by rural women, namely lack of firewood, clean drinking water, balanced diets, shelter and income. Throughout Africa, women are the primary caretakers, holding significant responsibility for tilling the land and feeding their families. As a result, they are often the first to become aware of environmental damage, as resources become scarce and incapable of sustaining their families. The women we worked with recounted that, unlike in the past, they were unable to meet their basic needs. This was due to the degradation of the immediate environment, as well as the introduction of commercial farming, which replaced the growing of household food crops. But international trade controlled the price of exports from these small-scale farmers, and a reasonable and just income could not be guaranteed. I came to understand that when the environment is destroyed, plundered or mismanaged, we undermine our quality of life and that of our future generations.

Tree planting became a natural choice to address some of the initial basic needs identified by women. Also, tree planting is simple, attainable, and guarantees quick, successful results within a reasonable amount of time. These are all important to sustain interest and commitment. So together we planted over 30 million trees that provide fuel, food, shelter and income to support the children and education and household needs. The activity also creates employment and improves soils and watersheds.

Through their involvement, women gained some degree of power over their lives, especially their socioeconomic position and relevance in the family. This work continues. Initially, the work was difficult because historically our people have been persuaded to believe that because they are poor they lack not only capital but also knowledge and skills to address their challenges. Instead, they are conditioned to believe that the solutions to their problems must come from outside. Further, women did not at that time realize that meeting their needs depended on their environment being healthy and well managed. They were also unaware that a degraded environment leads to a scramble for scarce resources and may culminate in poverty and even conflict. They were also unaware of the injustices of international economic arrangements.

In order to assist communities to understand these linkages, we developed a citizen education program, during which people identify their problems, causes and solutions. They then make connections between their own personal actions and the problems they witness in the environment and in society.

AMY GOODMAN: The late Wangari Maathai, Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, she died on Sunday in Kenya at the age of 71. You can go to our website at democracynow.org for our full archive of interviews with Wangari.

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