I had the honor of interviewing Nobel Prize for Peace Wangari Maathai…a true Light, a true Eco Hero. This interview is a part of the Sustainable Styles magazine launch, but it is posted today as a tribute to her life.
by Pamela Peeters
It’s the third time that I meet the Nobel Prize for Peace Wangari Maathai. A first time I follow a lecture at Cooper Union, introduced by one of the members of the Kennedy clan, known to take environmental preservation at heart. The second time I see Wangari, she is being interviewed by the editor of National Geographic for the closure of their special edition on Africa. The third time around, I am in her trendy hotel room close to the United Nations and propose her a list of ten questions. Two camera’s fill their blank tapes with digital images. I thank her for the interview…
PP. What is your wish for the future of our planet.
WM. I hope that we shall leave for our children a cleaner world, a more peaceful world, a more just world and the way to do that is to hence forth, see these three themes as being intricately connected, that for us to live in a peaceful world, we need to live sustainably and we need to manage ourselves with the justice and equity.
PP. Do you think it is a feminine trait to feel called to man-age the natural resources more so than a masculine trait?
WM. I have given that thought much consideration. It is quite possible that the feminine part of us is also present in men. It is that aspect that nurtures life, hoping that it will survive and reproduce itself. It is this part of us that sustains life. All of us depend on this base and we can call on this feminine part of us to take care of that environment.
PP. I didn’t expect this answer. But it is positive because it means that 100 % of the inhabitants of our planet feels called to take a part in this challenge.
Do you think there is a parallel between stronger environmental legislation and increased women’s representation in the workforce. ( = the more women are in positions in power the more the environment is taken care of ? )
WM.I don’t know how related they are, but again as a woman I want to underline that we are the people who produce life and who have in us that special quality of wanting to protect life. It’s quite possible that the more we get into influential positions, the more we can influence to bring about policies and laws that ensure that there is protection of the environment, there is protection of all aspects that sustain life, there is justice, there is equity, All of this will contribute to sustainable development.
But I also want to emphasize that this quality is not just found in women. I am quite sure it is also in men and then it becomes a matter of recognizing that trait within them. It is that aspect that can be nurturing that pursues sustainability, that goes beyond selfishness, greed and lust for power, that we often associate with those in power who are often men, I am quite sure there are millions of men out there who have the same qualities and who are doing great things. And I wish they would do more, because they are the ones who are actually in those positions of power and are therefore in a position to improve laws and protect the policies.
PP. What changes need to occur in existing systems/processes to achieve a sustainable level of wellbeing on a global level for the present and the future generations to come (ex, different accounting system, implement the rule that 0.7 % of the global domestic product of developed nations to go to developing countries,….. )
WM.When people think of developing nations and countries that need assistance from the rich countries we immediately think of Africa because that’s were the majority of poor people are. It is important for us to appreciate the fact to realize that Africa is not poor and I wish we would get out of that mode of presenting Africa as a poor continent, because Africa is an extremely rich continent. What has been happening to Africa for several centuries now is that her resources are constantly being extracted and being removed from the homeland. There exists also a minority that exists within Africa who end up having those resources at the expense of the millions of ordinary Africans.
Now many of the developed countries, of the rich countries, get their wealth through exploitation of those resources in Africa, because they have the knowledge, the skills and the capital, What is needed, even more than the aid, this zero 0.7 %, is that we keep advocating for, is that we research the fact if the countries that are being asked to give 0.7 % of their resources are the same as those who get their resources by exploiting the resources in Africa. They exploit those resources in ways that do not benefit the local people.
I do however not want to be misunderstood, I am not saying we do not need aid, I am not saying that we do not need that % 0.7. What I am saying is that there is need for economic justice both at the global level and at the local level
PP.What is your forecast for global environmental stewardship?
WM.We have to do our best to protect the natural resources and manage them correctly. The moment that they are exploited by those who have the knowledge and the capital a just amount of resources should be given to the local people, so that they are not left being poor only to be given aid tomorrow.
I believe that through this new application of managing the natural resources an aspect of de-humanization can be released and the local people can gain confidence.
PP.You say that the level of world peace is dependent on the democratic management and access to natural resources. Would it be realistic to say that if our resources would be better respected and managed, there would be a better level of world peace?
WM.There is no justice in the economic policies we have at the moment with each other and that to me is something that we ought to look at. When we hear that Africa asks for help, this actually means that Africa is asking for aid is asking for justice, economic justice besides humanitarian aid.
But nobody wants to turn the page and pause at the question “but why are Africans so poor if they live in a continent that is so rich?” Let us look at the economic justice, social justice both at the global level.
PP.In your struggle to make yourself be heard as an environmentalist and a woman, what kept you going, where did you get your strength?
WM.It is not easy to say it is this point at this time that I got the inspiration, that I got the encouragement or this is where I go and get a surplus of encouragement or courage, The truth is that we are created as we grow.
When I look back at my life, when I was a child and growing up, when I was in college, the experiences of living in America and in Europe, studying in these countries, seeing how things got man- aged in those countries it gave me a perspective that encouraged me when I tried to do things in my country, “this is the way things should be.”
When I said “it is important for us to respect human rights”, it is partly because of the experiences I had in this country, in the USA of the sixties when they were fighting with the need to liberate its citizens. You will remember, those were the years of the Vietnam war, the students movement, it was also the time where African countries were coming out of the colonial era. I was shaped very much by the events. I know that I am a very privileged person, because I have enjoyed a certain education and this was against the prevailing trend where women didn’t have the opportunity to go to school.
I always say that people who do not have the right perspective, people who are not aware, are those who can go to sleep peacefully. It is those of us who recognize injustices, who recognize inequities and witness exploitation and who know that they can do something about it, are those who cannot sleep at night.
I myself have developed a very easy way to deal with my frustration: planting trees, You dig a hole, you plant a tree, you nurture it and half of your frustrations are gone, because you have done something positive.
The bible says that those who are given more, are expected to do more. And I really do feel that I have a responsibility towards the people for whom I should be there eyes, I should be there ears, and their spokesperson because I understand the way of the world.
PP.What is your opinion about the increased acceptance that nuclear power might be the best alternative solution to our energy demand.
WM.I know that many people who are worried about the increase of the greenhouse gases and who feel that we really need to do something about the banning of fossil fuels, are advocating for the nuclear energy. The greatest fear that all of us have about nuclear energy is the danger for accidents. There exists also the potential of abuse because we don’t know to what extend this source of energy will be used, not excluding warfare.
So it is a very difficult choice and it is important that we evolve to ways of generating energy that are safe and nuclear energy obviously is a very dangerous technology because of the fact that human beings don’t always do what’s good for the common good.
PP.We have launched the UNESCO decade for sustainable education in 2005, for which I have created a film festival showcasing people’s identified local pressure points and solutions. Besides showcasing movies and discussing them in an expert panel, we also have a practical side to the film festival: for the first year we will select a project for which we will further enhance the sustainable parameters. The entire process will be filmed and will be the opening movie to next year’s festival. Would you like to become a partner to the festival?
WM. I would be quite happy to link up with you as a member of parliament I have a constituency that actually bought us a forest that is so degraded that we want to protect and rehabilitate through a campaign.
It’s both an environmental activity to educate people that there is a strong linkage between the exploitation of the natural resources and the protection of the environment of this forest. So I would like to encourage you to come to Nairobi and film this project. You can then see for yourself how these people get their water from the mountain and go to the mountain to plant trees to protect the mountain Njadarea.
It takes one dollar to planet one tree. You can collect money, send the money, plant the trees. You can come and film that entire process. I would be very happy to welcome you!
PP.Parallel to the UNESCO decade for Sustainable Education, what do you project to achieve in the next ten years and what do you need in order to successfully accomplish this.
WM.I hope that in ten years I shall be able to say that the greenbelt movement has become truly global, that all these offices that we are establishing have become successful and that we have found projects in every continent to support. Now these projects can be what we are doing in Kenya but they can also be projects that are relevant to the areas where the greenbelt movement is operating.
Do you remember when the shuttle Discovery came down and the commander heard the press conference, she said that one of the observations she made that Africa was very dusty. I hope that in ten years we shall have done enough to stop that dust so that whenever another astronaut will be go up there that he can testify that the dust has either been removed or greatly reduced. That is my wish.
PP. And so it will be!
After the opening of Greenbelt USA, Wangari left for Kenya to plant even more trees. She and I have another appointment in the nearby future and will, once more, put it on digital tape.