Image: Mainichi Corporation via The Green Belt Movement
When I interviewed Wangari Maathai in July 2004, I had no idea she would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just a few months later. By the time the award was announced, I had booked tickets from New York to Nairobi to volunteer with her organization, the Green Belt Movement.It was an exciting moment: the first time the prize was awarded to an environmentalist and to an African woman. She was both, although she was no stranger to firsts. The Nobel Prize that year seemed like a formal recognition that the fight for environmental sustainability is an integral part of the battle for human rights, and that one cannot be fought without the other.
The world lost Wangari on Sunday—and her family plans to bury her without a wooden coffin, out of respect for her opposition to cutting trees down to make them. They've also requested that people around the world "plant trees in honour of Wangari."
When I heard about the loss of the inspiring environmental hero and leader that Wangari was, I looked back at my interview with her and thought about why she was such a force for me personally at the time.
She was one of the first people, at least one of the first with a platform, to make connections between environmental issues, democracy, and women's and human rights.
She had recently transitioned from her grassroots work into politics and was working in the Kenyan Parliament. I asked her what that transition was like. She said:
I find myself as a bridge between the government and civil society. I understand the civil society very well, I understand their strengths, I understand their weaknesses. I am now beginning to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the government, and I can see that the two can assist each other very well. And I'm hoping that the GBM will find the resources because it has the capacity, it was the will, it is ready to do the work. The government has the will, but it still has to put its machinery in place, and that may take time. So the partnership can be excellent.
One question that continuously comes up for me is the role of awareness and education in social change. It often seems like however "aware" people are of the challenges we face, there is very little progress to show for it. It was a question I struggled with then as much as now, and her answer is still one of the best I've gotten in all these years:
We are essentially an environmental movement, but we also want people to understand their basic rights so they can take action. Information empowers you to demand what is yours. If you are not informed, you are very vulnerable--people take advantage. People who are not aware that their rights are being violated accept their suffering in silence.
Her answer to the greatest challenge facing the environment is also one that is just as valid and eloquent today as it was seven years ago:
The biggest problem is the balancing act between what we know we need, as the minimum that we should have for our environment, and balancing that with our demand for development, for example. The government knows we need clean drinking water, that they should not cut trees if they need water--but they need trees, they need the timber, they need paper. So balancing that becomes a problem. We all know that we need to conserve our wildlife, but we also want to expand our agricultural farms, we want to make them bigger, more productive. Therefore we want to [use] commercial agrochemicals--yet we know that those are going to destroy the soil. We know we need to protect the air, we need to release less harmful gases into the atmosphere, but we also want to move around, we want to fly, we want to drive our cars.
Balancing. That to me is always the problem, whether it is at the personal or at the government level, or at the global level.
And finally, I liked her definition of empowerment, a word that is perhaps overused today but the concept of which is extremely important to understand and to embrace. She said empowerment:
is almost like restoring the original self-confidence, the capacity of people to take care of what is their own, to not be observers but to become active participants in the restoration of the environment.
World leaders have publicly commemorated her life and her leadership. I hope they, and the rest of the world, will follow her path in the struggle for democracy, environmental preservation, and equal rights for all.