Wangari Maathai: I will be a hummingbird

The elites have become predators, self-serving and only turning to people when they need them. We can never all be equal, but we can ensure we do not allow excessive poverty or wealth. Inequality breeds insecurity.
– Wangari Maathai

John Vidal’s obituary for Wangari Maathai in The Guardian today is a stirring account of the life and achievements of an exemplary woman. Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, and the first Nobel laureate to make the link between keeping peace and conserving the environment:

The state of any country’s environment is a reflection of the kind of governance in place, and without good governance there can be no peace.

Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement is led by and for rural Kenyan women. What began with planting a few tree seedlings grew to forever reshape the political landscape of Kenya and the world. Maathai trained thousands of women on everything from water conservation to civic leadership, and to date, they’ve planted 35 million trees in a country devastated by deforestation. Along the way, they also helped overthrow a dictatorship.

Vidal observes that initially, the Green Belt movement’s tree-planting activities did not address issues of democracy and peace.  However, it became clear to Maathai that responsible governance of the environment was impossible without effective democracy. The tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya and a way of challenging widespread abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement:

The tree is just a symbol for what happens to the environment. The act of planting one is a symbol of revitalising the community. Tree-planting is only the entry point into the wider debate about the environment. Everyone should plant a tree.

Vidal begins by recalling his last conversation with Maathai:

For a young Kikuyu girl growing up in the early 1940s, the small village of Ihithe, in the lush central highlands of Kenya, was next to perfect. There were no books or gadgets in the houses, but there were leopards and elephants in the thick forests around, clean water, rich soils, and food and work for everyone. “It was heaven. We wanted for nothing. … Now the forests have come down, the land has been turned to commercial farming, the tea plantations keep everyone poor, and the economic system does not allow people to appreciate the beauty of where they live.”

And you can hear the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings when you read that after graduating from high school in 1959, she won a scholarship to study in the US, as part of the ‘Kennedy airlift’ in which 300 Kenyans – including Barack Obama’s father – were chosen to study at American universities in 1960.

After her return from the US, Maathai became increasingly involved in environmental causes and activism.  In 1977, the first ‘Green Belt’ action in Nairobi instigated what became the Green Belt Movement. Maathai encouraged women throughout Kenya to plant tree nurseries in their villages, searching nearby forests for seeds to grow trees native to the area. She agreed to pay the women a small stipend for each seedling which was later planted elsewhere.

Presenting her with the Peace Prize in 2004, the Nobel committee hailed her for taking  ‘a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular’ and for serving ‘as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights’.

Elsewhere in The Guardian, John Vidal has written of Maathai’s fierce denunciation of the rich north in a talk she gave on a visit to Britain in 1988:

The top of the pyramid is blinded by insatiable appetites backed by scientific knowledge, industrial advancement, the need to acquire, accumulate and over-consume. The rights of those at the bottom are violated every day by those at the top.

Her disdain for the economics promoted by Britain, the World Bank, and the west was huge:

The economic and political systems are designed to create more numbers, population pressures show no sign of waning, deforestation and desertification continue. The people at the top of the pyramid do not understand the limits to growth and they do not appreciate that they jeopardise the capacity of future generations to meet their own needs.

Wangari Maathai planting a tree

In a tribute on the BBC website, Richard Black, Environment Correspondent, writes:

It’s not just planting trees – it’s the reasons why trees are planted, it’s the social side of how the tree-planting works, it’s the political work that goes alongside tree-planting, and it’s the vision that sees loss of forest as translating into loss of prospects for people down the track.

There is, in some parts of the world, a backlash now against these ideas.  Every couple of days an email comes into my inbox asserting that the way to help poorer countries develop is to get them to exploit their natural resources as quickly and deeply as possible with no regard for problems that may cause.

Organisations promoting this viewpoint are not, to my knowledge, based in the developing world but in the Western capitals that might make use of the fruits of such exploitation – cheaper wood, cheaper oil, cheaper metals. It is the opposite of sustainable.

Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai is a documentary film that tells the dramatic story of a woman whose simple act of planting trees grew into a nationwide movement to safeguard the environment, protect human rights, and defend democracy.  YouTube has a clip:

It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated. So we must stand up for what we believe in.
– Wangari Maathai

Here’s an example of Wangari Maathai’s inspirational message – ‘I will be a hummingbird’ from the film, Dirt: The Movie:


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