More than three decades ago, Wangari Maathai came up with the idea of using economic incentives to encourage rural women and farmers to plant trees on their land to protect the environment and promote sustainable development. In 2004 Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the Green Belt Movement, a nonprofit NGO she founded in her native Kenya. She spoke with NEWSWEEK’s R. M. Schneiderman about how empowering women can link up with ecological activism. Excerpts:
What first inspired the idea behind your movement?
I grew up in the countryside, and so the issues that affect rural women were familiar to me. Most farmers wanted to plant cash crops, and they removed every inch of vegetation. We were facilitating soil erosion, and the soil was carried away to the river and the women had no clean water. When you have trees on your land, you can stop the overflow. If you harvest that water and it stays in the topsoil, you are more likely to maximize food production. When it runs off, it causes damage and you end up being hungry and not harvesting the crops.
How does this affect women?
Decisions on how to manage the environment are being made by governments, which are dominated by men. But women get the brunt of the impact of environment degradation. If they don’t have water, they are the ones who have to get it. If they don’t have firewood, they are the ones who have to get it. Men can escape into urban centers and look for jobs. For the women, therefore, it becomes important for them to empower themselves and inform themselves and take action to hold governments accountable and demand better policies.
How do you get people to plant the trees?
To convince a farmer to plant a tree is not that difficult. You have to convince a farmer to plant a tree and not cut it down tomorrow. You have to tell the farmer, if you plant this tree and you take care of it, I’m going to give you a financial incentive to do so. Then we try and educate farmers on how to manage their resources. If they lose the soil when the rain comes, that has nothing to do with the government [but] with the fact that they have not been taking care of their land.
What is your next project?
I’ve partnered with the University of Nairobi, [and] we’ve established a center called the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies. We’ve had requests in many parts of the world from people who want to learn how the Green Belt Movement mobilizes communities, and this institute will make it possible. My main vision is to bring young people from universities and farms to come and learn by doing. In Africa there are so many of us who are educated, but we don’t use our education to bring about change. We are given an education that encourages us to sit and wait for people to employ us. We are not sufficiently able to be innovators and use our creativity. We will focus on female leadership, and it is going to focus not only on Africa, but also beyond.
How have things changed since your movement began?
I have literally seen a revolution in terms of awareness of how we need to protect our environment. We have seen governments and local communities committing to changing policies to facilitate sustainable management of our resources. Unfortunately, we’ve also seen high population increases and greater demand for land and food production. Governments are being pushed to take care of the immediate demands and needs of citizens.
And in terms of women?
Women have been given opportunities to study, even in countries that are oppressive to them. In Kenya, for instance, Muslim communities don’t tend to send their girls to school. But even in those communities, we have seen a major upsurge in [women] going to school.
How do you think things will change over the next decade?
I expect that in the next 10 years, we’ll see a shift from carbon-based economies to alternative-energy-based economies. I really see an opportunity for women to make a big contribution [in that shift]. There has been a transformation among men in accepting that women have come to the table and that they deserve their share of seats.