Wangari Maathai: African leadership on parole

London: December 16th, 2004; event co-hosted by Gaia Foundation and a number of development and environment organisations

What we are doing to the earth, we are doing to ourselves

Speaker: Professor Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

How can an environmentalist win the Nobel Peace Prize? And how does an African woman gain such recognition? That both of these bastions have fallen together is a measure of the achievement of Professor Wangari Maathai who spoke in London at an evening of celebration in aid of the Foundation set up in her name.

The message of the Nobel award, Wangari suggested, is that we should stop being surprised about the conjunction of peace, environmentalism and African women. It’s time for NGOs in particular to remove their labels – environment workers, peace workers, development workers -– these are unhelpful divisions; “if you are truly concerned about people”, she said, “you have to think holistically”.

The heart of the presentation was a detailed account of the work of Wangari’s Greenbelt Movement in Kenya, from its humble beginnings in the 1970s with a single group of women learning the skills of nurturing trees. The paradigm contained some telling messages for development projects. When the Kenyan Forestry Commissioners proved ineffective teachers of their skills, the group “decided to abandon professionalism and deal with common sense”. And creating livelihoods for women was not regarded as a sufficient measure of success; of far greater importance was the process of learning about power structures as they tried to replicate their work in neighbouring communities.

Wangari explained how the women came to recognize that the “governance structure was not conducive to protecting the environment because politicians are the most destructive members of society, engaged in illegal logging, corruption and mismanagement of resources”. Awakened to the importance of the ballot box, the women emerged as workers for democracy as much as workers for the environment. Likewise came the realization that tribal conflict has its origins in the fight for natural resources and can be resolved only through dialogue and understanding.

Recognition of Professor Wangari’s work enables her to paint the lessons of the Greenbelt movement on a wider canvas. The traditional three-legged African stool symbolizes her message for the continent. The 3 legs are represented by good governance of resources, democratic space for people to feel included, and dialogue to ensure peace. As with the tree-planting programmes, the stool will topple unless each leg is in place. “If a country has no peace, no democracy and its resources are badly governed, then you will waste your money“ was Wangari’s message to the donor community.

However interdependent the legs of the African stool, it is the question of good governance that most agitates Professor Wangari. For her the challenge of this Nobel Prize is especially that “African leaders must rethink their roles so that they represent the people of Africa properly” she said; “we must enable children to grow and have families instead of being shot in the frontline of battles they do not understand”. Now herself pitchforked into a potential leadership role surely beyond that of Deputy Minister for Environment in Kenya, Professor Wangari Maathai stands today as a champion of the holistic values she so passionately advocates.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK