Eco Hero: Wangari Maathai Joins Ecology and Peace in Africa

April 13, 2010

We might feel like we’re a world away from Africa, but that doesn’t stop our carbon emissions from polluting that continent and raising the temperature of the planet as a whole. Poverty-stricken Africans find it hard to survive as it is, without our emissions increasing floods and droughts. Someone had to take a stand; Kenya’s Wangari Maathai would not take it lying down.

First Environmentalist to Win Nobel Prize

Caring deeply about Africa’s environment and its people, Maathai became the first environmentalist and first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize (2004) for organizing women in her country to spread peace through tree-planting. Over 30 million trees have been planted throughout Kenya since Maathai launched the Green Belt Movement there in 1977. Today the cause has spread around the globe and now involves men, too.

How does tree-planting help Africa? Maathai realized the activity was as beneficial as the end result, giving Kenyan women purpose and companionship in a country that treated them as inferior. When the government foresters told Maathai that illiterate village woman could not plant trees, she proved them wrong by establishing 6,000 village nurseries with the help of tens of thousands of female “foresters without diplomas.”

Planting so many trees in Kenya, which has 8% less forest cover than the United Nations’ 10% recommended minimum, has numerous benefits for a largely rural country. As well as capturing carbon, which will help quell the extreme weather patterns that destroy crops and homes, planting trees improves soils and watersheds.

Making the Eco-Peace Connection

But how does environmental conservation lead to peace? Maathai explained the numerous links between the environment, democracy and peace in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, such as the need for a government to enforce environmental laws:

“As we progressively understood the causes of environmental degradation, we saw the need for good governance. Indeed, 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. Many countries, which have poor governance systems, are also likely to have conflicts and poor laws protecting the environment.”

As well as needing a government strong enough to enforce environmental laws, citizens need one that actually cares about the environment to start with, and grants them the freedom to spend time and money on conservation activities. Governments receptive to environmentalism are almost always more sensitive to peace issues as well.

Ecology, Democracy and Peace

Maathai went on to suggest that sparking people into action over the environment gives them confidence to take control over other areas of their lives, such as democracy. Obviously, a strongly representative system helps root out corruption and strengthens the voice of individual citizens who are less likely than unscrupulous officials to benefit from or want war.

The Green Belt Movement started planting trees as a symbol of peace, employing the African tradition of bringing a tree between two conflicting sides to instigate a truce. Trees of peace were also planted throughout Kenya, such as Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, at Freedom Corner, “to demand the release of prisoners of conscience and a peaceful transition to democracy.”

Additional Benefits of Trees

The trees in themselves are a great renewable resource, too, which could decrease the potential for conflicts over natural resources, a major cause of war in Africa and elsewhere. Sustainably managed forests provide fuel and construction materials, for example, and help improve the soil and ideal climate for growing additional plant resources, including those for food, fuel, industry and trade.

The impact of Maathai’s work is evident through the recognition she has received. As well as the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, the environmentalist has received 14 honorary degrees and nearly 50 awards. She has also stood for the Kenyan parliament and served on the boards of various peace-bringing organizations.

Wangari Maathai’s work is a great vision of how instigating peace between nature and people improves the peace amongst themselves, allowing them in turn to shift more energies and resources toward conserving the environment. If you can see room for improvement, what’s stopping you? If you want to save the world but don’t know where to start, take a cue from Maathai—plant a tree.

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