WangariMaathai: A Woman Traveler
WangariMaathai (1 April 1940 – 25 September 2011) gained globalprominence when she was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace prize for hercontribution towards environmental conservation and fight fordemocratic space in Kenya and the whole world. Born and raised inrural Kenya (Africa), Wangari Maathai struggled to gain education asshe was from a poor a background. Through determination, she managedto pursue her education despite the difficulties and was among thevery first female PHD holders in Africa. She obtained a degree inBiological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison,Kansas (1964), a Master of Science degree from the University ofPittsburgh (1966), and pursued doctoral studies in Germany and theUniversity of Nairobi, before obtaining a Ph.D. (1971) from theUniversity of Nairobi, where she also taught veterinary anatomy. Sheis most remembered for her contribution to environmentalconservation, human rights advocacy and her inspiration to otherwomen and young girls around the world.
Wangaridefinitely made it to the pinnacle of education as PHD holder. She isamong the very few first female Africa to achieve such academicsuccess at a time when girl child education was viewed as lessimportant compared to boy child education. For the many underprivileged in society, they can draw inspiration from her storystarting from humble beginnings in rural Kenya to what she became inlife before her untimely demise. Her story also encouraged andchallenged many parents in Africa and the rest of the world to investin girl child education by demonstrating that girls could excel inschool as much if not better than boys. Her education throughsponsorship to foreign countries also captured the need to invest inbetter education systems in developing countries to cut off talentdrain with many qualified individuals choosing to settle abroad afterreceiving western education. Wangari on the other hand showed herlove and commitment to her motherland by returning to Kenya where sheserved in different capacities and inspired many young girls topursue education fervently. This saw her attend and give speeches atseveral UN conferences on women as will be discussed later in thepaper. Other than this, her environmental conservation efforts aremost remembered through the Green Belt Movement (GBM).
Sheestablished the Greenbelt Movement in 1977 as an organization thattargets women primarily to fight deforestation, fight soil erosionand promote women empowerment, ecotourism and socioeconomicdevelopment. The organization has been launched in other developingcountries around the world with the same vision. Throughout theworld, the organization has managed to plant over 50 million trees asof 2013. In her native Kenya, Wangari Maathai traveled aroundvillages to educate and sensitize local women about climate changeand the need for environmental conservation. Her travels also exposedher to the effects of climate change. She managed to present alocalized approach to environmental conservation by emphasizing onthe need to plant trees to ensure continued supply of firewood andcharcoal which happens to be the major sources of energy in the ruralvillages of Kenya. The women were organized into small self helpgroups that established tree nurseries for commercial purposesthereby making tree planting more relevant to local needs. Majorityof the women were illiterate but this did not deter them from makingthe connection between deforestation and climate change as forestswere cleared and streams dried up.
Itis through this organization that Wangari Maathai has been able toimpact and affect millions positively. She emphasized onselflessness, sense of service, and compassion that characterizedhuman nature (Speech Lille). These are the virtues that she espousedas a person and also carried out through the organization. Her viewof life was that justice and respect fro human rights cannot be fullyimplemented if there is unfair and unequal distribution of resourcesneeded to create wealth. In one of her many speeches, she indicatedthat the reason why the world is experiencing conflict is because avery small fraction of the global population controls majority of thewealth creating resources. This view has seen her heading calls topreserve forests and natural environments in her home country and inother places around the world.
Oneof the most memorable contributions towards fighting for publicresources was in her home country Kenya. In the capital city Nairobi,corrupt government officials had grabbed and subdivided one of thecity’s main recreational parks, Uhuru Park. The year was 1989 andthe country had very little democratic space with the then autocraticpresident ruling with an iron fist and any dissidence being dealtwith brutally. Wangari travelled the whole country of Kenya callingfor support against the government plans. She went ahead and evensought the support of international bodies such as UN Habitat andUNEP to bring to attention the actions of the government. By doing soshe risked imprisonment and even social and political seclusion. Inher talks, she compared Uhuru Park to London’s Hyde Park and NewYork’s Central Park. Her argument was that no city can survivewithout a recreational park for public use. In the end, Wangarimanaged to bring to an end to the plan to subdivide the public parkwhich was marked for development of a skyscraper and a shopping mall.
Thesecond most significant contribution to her home country’sconservation efforts was again repelling plans to subdivide the 1000hectares Karura forest for development. The natural forest whichneighbors some of the most affluent estates in Nairobi and just aboutfive kilometers from the city’s CBD was again being encroached bydevelopers during the Moi era. On January 8th1999, the world media was awash with images of Wangari Maathaialongside several other prominent personalities being brutallyattacked by police and hired thugs at Karura Forest during a treeplanting exercise in a section that had already been cleared bydevelopers. The event was highly publicized globally and was citedboth as a case of environmental conservation and human rightsviolation. Amnesty International was enjoined in the case calling forinternational organizations to intervene to save the country’sforests from an arrogant regime that had seen the nation’s forestcover fall below 2% against the UN recommended forest cover of 10% ofall land cover. Her efforts and commitment to human rights, democracyand environmental conservation won her many fans around the world.News of her efforts and sacrifice to nature won her internationalattention and soon she traveled around the world to make her point onenvironmental conservation (Maathai2011).
Inone of her articles titled the Cracked Mirror published in theResurgence magazine, Wangari introduced an interesting perspective toenvironmental conservation. She indicated that the best way toapproach environment conservation was through a cultural approach.She indicated that her interest in trees from an early age was theknowledge she got from her parents and grandparents pertaining totrees. She says that she grew up knowing that ancestors resided inthe shadows of trees hence it was important to have trees around togive the ancestors a place to dwell. Among the kikuyu tribe to whichWangari descended from, ancestors were an important element of theirculture with many issues such as one’ success being attributed toancestors. Therefore, to house ancestors one had to plant trees. Sheblamed western education for having replaced such beliefs among thembeing that God dwelled in Mt Kenya. With the introduction of thebible and Christianity, the mountain which holds a forest reservelost a part of its relevance to the society as they learnt that Goddwells in heaven and not in the mountain. Again, there were specialhardwood trees that the community preserved keenly due to theirrelevance to their traditional religion. With Christianity, thesetrees have lost their place and thousands of them have been cut downto give way to development and timber. This view has been verycritical round the word in environmental conservation efforts whereforests and environmental issues are approached using a localcultural perspectives. Wangari placed women at the center of theconservation efforts.
Forinstance, in her speech at the 4thUN Conference on Women titled Bottlenecks to Development in Africa,Wangari emphasized that climate change and environmental degradationshall not be tackled by boardroom conferences or policy papers but byordinary citizens. She cited her success through GBM which had usedlocal women irrespective of their literacy levels to impact society.She indicated that the movement has been operating without a fixedpolicy relying on trial and error method to develop the bestsolutions to local problems relevant to the local people. In sodoing, she informed that environment conservation efforts must firstbe able to educate people to differentiate between causes andsymptoms of environmental degradation. She also roped in governmentsand political systems in addressing the bottlenecks that facedeveloping nations’ environmental conservation and ensuring equaldevelopment.
Peaceand security are important contributors to conservation efforts andadvancement of the needs of women in society. To Wangari, havingendured the unique challenges of being woman in a male dominatedworld and also after interacting with women from poor social economicbackgrounds, she understood best how socioeconomic strife andenvironmental conservation and women interact. To her politicalinstability and absence of peace in Africa, destructive style ofpolitical and economic leadership, slow democratization, inadequateinternational cooperation, little technology transfer, corruption,poverty population pressure, famine, illiteracy, excessive foreigninfluence and destroyed traditional knowledge and spiritual heritageas the key bottlenecks and hindrances to economic development andproper environmental conservation in Africa. Consequently, westerncountries and some international agencies have renewed theirapproaches to global climate change by seeking first to address thebottlenecks
Today,more African countries are investing in renewable energy such assolar and abandoning unsustainable practices such as use of firewoodand charcoal as sources of fuel.
Ondemocracy was also very vocal voicing her concerns to variousgovernments in Africa and around the world to preserve and respecthuman rights. During her key note address, Sustained Development,Democracy, and Peace in Africa” given in Gwangiu China, she calledfor the respect for freedom of movement to Laureates like Madame AungSan Suu Kyi of Burma and 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso who had beenbarred from travelling to the conference. Wangari noted that propergovernance was a key pillar in protecting human dignity and freedoms.In some other countries such as Brazil and Thailand, governments havebeen accused of propagating human abuses in order to exploit theenvironment in unsustainable manner. For some indigenous tribesliving in the Amazon forests, their habitats have been encroached bydevelopers and timber harvesters without regard to the effect of lossof forest on the people. Wangari emphasized on the need to show aclear link between human rights, freedoms and respect for theenvironment. To her, socioeconomic empowerment and knowledge werecritical to environmental conversation. Her view was that repressivegovernments are keen to utilize the environment in corrupt wayswithout showing respect to the people who are most affected by suchpractices (Maathai1995).
Shemade link governance, human rights and sustainable resource use andutilization in her metaphor of a three legged African stool. Shereiterated that for there was need to governmenst to understand thelink in these three pillars to achieve the goals of environmentalconservation in short. For countries that have no democratic spaceand that have poor leadership, enviromenal resources will be poorlyutilized and the envroena will be badly affecetd thereby putting atrisk millions of future lives. She used her home countrys poorleadership, lack of democractis space corrpuption and the famine adnhunger that are predominant in the region. It her criticism of thegovernment for environmental conservation that got her into troublewith Kenya’s government. Nonetheless, all must agree that “wecannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and futuregenerations of all species to rise up and walk” (Maathai 2011)
Wangari’slegacy remains strong, the present generation must take deliberateand proactive actions to protect the environment and pass it on tofuture generations the same way the current generation received itfrom ancestors. Everyone has a role to play. Her story of the hummingbird seemingly insignificant efforts in fighting forest fires shouldinspire each and everyone around the world to take action no matterhow small. Combined efforts of all individuals will create a betterworld that will not only sustain life currently but will also protectthe lives of future generations. Governments have an integral role toplay in pursuing a better environment and even the lives of futuregenerations. While it is mandated with developing policies, it isalso required to empower the people and also enact facilitatingpolicies. Public awareness and education on environmentalconservation trough a localized approach has also taken root courtesyof Wangari’s efforts in traveling around the world to educatepeople about it. Today, most organization involved in environmentalconservation in their corporate social responsibility efforts can beseen to employ these approaches through sponsoring local solutions tointernational problems with a global impact.
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