Wangari Maathai makes multi-tasking look easy. Firing off emails from her blackberry while balancing a half-eaten bowl of cornflakes and pouring us both a cup of tea, she's not a woman to let a minute of her time go to waste. Today, not unusually, she's been up since 5am. “Time is a precious thing,” she says. “Like all valuable resources we have to use it wisely.”
Wrapped head to toe in a sky blue and canary yellow dress and elaborately-tied matching headscarf, Maathai looks much younger than her 67 years. She speaks with a calm, slow and deep voice, projecting a sense of both warmth and authority.
The Nobel Laureate, professor of veterinary anatomy and Kenya’s Assistant Minister for the Environment is probably the wisest – and busiest - person I have ever met. Despite her packed schedule, she radiates a sense of calm and equilibrium, managing to be at once both statesman-like and reassuringly down-to-earth. Addressing a UN conference on climate change, for example, she'll use homely metaphors and everyday language, likening the incremental threat of global warming to “leaving a pot of water on the stove”.
“My message is big,” she says, on a visit to Britain. “The threat to our planet is huge. But, if you terrify people or confuse them with scientific language you immobilise them, you disempower them.”
After studying in the US in the 1970s, Maathai returned to Kenya to find her home was a very different place to that which she had left behind. She noticed that the cows in the fields were so skinny she could count their ribs and, more shockingly, the villagers looked undernourished and the vegetation in the fields was scant. Women were complaining of having to walk miles to collect firewood, of a lack of clean drinking water and there were reports of malnutrition among the children. “I noticed that the rivers would rush down the hillsides and along paths and roads when it rained, and that they were muddy and polluted with silt,” she recalls. “This was very different from when I was growing up. When I was young, the neighbouring villages had co-existed in peace but now there were reports of an increasing number of conflicts between communities. Deep down I knew that these conflicts were to do with access to diminishing resources. If we tackled the root cause of the dwindling resources, we could end the conflicts.”
This realisation has informed Maathai's work ever since. In 1977 she set up the Green Belt Movement, a tree-planting initiative aimed at reversing the effects of deforestation and creating employment opportunities for rural Kenyan women. What began with the planting of seven young saplings in her own back garden grew to become an international movement which has now planted more than 30 million trees across Africa. Last year, Maathai’s work inspired Plant for the Planet, A UN campaign to plant one billion trees across the world in an attempt to reverse the effects of climate change.
But why focus on planting trees? “I reacted to a set of problems by focusing on what could be done,” she says. This statement is typical Maathai –practical, positive and solution-orientated. “When I am confronted with a problem I want to know: What is the source? If I'm dealing with the symptoms, I will continue dealing with them for a very long time. But if I get to the bottom, I can deal with the cause.”
The root cause in Maathai’s Kenyan home was environmental degradation, specifically deforestation. “Planting trees provided a supply of wood, enabling women to cook nutritious foods. Trees offer shade for humans and animals, protect watersheds and bind the soil, and, if they are fruit trees, provide food. They also heal the land, regenerate the vitality of the earth and mitigate the build-up of carbon dioxide, a major contributor to climate change.”
Since 1977, the Green Belt Movement has created jobs for thousands of women and, in 2004 led to Maathai being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But, along with the respect Maathai has earned over her lifetime, she has acquired a number of powerful and dangerous enemies.
“At first the Green Belt Movement was dismissed by the authorities as ‘just a bunch of women planting trees’”, she says. “But, as more and more women came onboard the authorities started to intervene.”
What made the Green Belt Movement so threatening to the Kenyan authorities was precisely the same thing that led to its success. Instead of looking at climate change as a single isolated issue, Maathai made very clear the links between caring for the environment and democracy and good governance. From the outset the Green Belt Movement erased the distinctions between environmentalism, feminism, civil and human rights advocacy and political transformation. “I got pulled deeper and deeper and saw how these issues were intertwined and linked to governance, to corruption and dictatorship,” she says.
In the 70s and 80s, the Kenyan authorities used heavy-handed tactics including hiring gangs of machete-wielding thugs to intimidate and even kill Green Belt members and supporters. But Maathai refused to be intimidated. “Because I am focused on the solution, I don't see the danger.”
As a young girl growing up in the shadow of Mount Kenya, Maathai never dreamed that she would achieve what she has in her life; certainly not that she would win the Nobel Peace Prize. As the first environmentalist to win the prize, the Nobel judges recognised emphatically the link between environmentalism and peace. “When the Norwegian committee gave this prize to me it was sending a new message. It was sending a message about the need to manage our resources very seriously. We need to learn to look after and share these resources because otherwise we will never have lasting peace.”
Recently voted one of the top ten ‘Eco Heroes of All Time’ by the UK Environment Agency, Maathai is positive about the future of the environmental movement, but clear about the extent of the work that needs to be done.
What's the single most important thing we can do to reverse climate change and all its associated problems? “Put pressure on your government to reduce its carbon emissions and to look after the environment responsibly.” Anything else? “Of course, plant a tree!" she replies with a deep laugh.
(Pauline Diamond is studying at the Scottish Centre for Journalism Studies, Strathclyde University)Reuse content