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Getting to the heart of the matter

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Getting to the heart of the matter

An interview with Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai
Africa Renewal
From Africa Renewal: 
AFP / Getty Images / Simon Maina

On 10 December 2004, the noted environmentalist, women’s rights activist and pro-democracy campaigner Ms. Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She gained international recognition in 1977, when she founded the Green Belt Movement to combat deforestation and soil erosion in her native Kenya. During an exclusive interview with Africa Renewal in New York on 19 December, the 64-year-old biologist spoke about her long struggle for environmental and social justice. The full interview can be found under “New Releases” on the Africa Renewal website: <>.

Wangari Maathai speaking at the UN in December 2004. Wangari Maathai speaking at the UN in December 2004.
Photograph: UN Photo / Eskinder Debebe

AR: Could you please talk about the connection between human rights and environmental issues, and how you came to it?

Maathai: In the beginning, 30 years ago, I was responding to the needs of rural populations, especially women, who were looking for firewood. They were looking for food. They were looking for building materials, for fodder for the animals. They were trying to meet the basic needs in their communities. I immediately connected what they were asking for with the land. I suggested that what we needed was to plant trees.

It was then that I confronted the problem of democratic governance. I noticed that we really did not have a democratic system, because immediately we started organizing, the government did not want us to organize. The government said you cannot meet. If you’re in a system which does not allow its citizens to participate in decision-making, or demand certain decisions from their government, it is impossible to protect the environment. Therefore for me, the connection between protecting the environment, managing resources responsibly and allowing for equitable distribution of these resources to avoid conflict required democratic space.

AR: Most economists define development in a traditional way -- producing cash crops, industrial development, emphasizing trade. But you don’t define it that way.

Maathai: No. Development to me is a quality of life. It’s not necessarily acquisition of a lot of things. I have been using the example of an African stool. An African stool has three legs. On those legs balance a basin. One of those three legs is peace. Another is good governance. And the other is good management of our resources. Now this good management of our resources, as I’ve said, includes equitable distribution -- allowing as many people as possible to share in the natural resources. This allows as many people as possible to experience respect, dignity [and] respect of their rights -- and therefore avoids conflict.

AR: In 1995 you gave a speech at the Beijing women’s conference that included criticism of the world economic system and globalization. What are your views today?

Maathai: It has only gotten worse. Africa has not been given the opportunity to do trade fairly. The trade balance, the trade tariffs, the rules and regulations which are required for Africa, are still very harsh, very unequal.

Woman with a baby voting “We see more governments which have been brought into place by the ballot rather than the bullet.”
Photograph: UN / Martine Perret

The debt has continued to eat into the capital of Africa so strongly that many governments are still not able to service their people as long as they are servicing the debt. We raised all the issues why it should be cancelled, but the industrialized countries did not do very much.

Unfortunately, our own governments have not done their part either. I remember the industrialized countries and even the World Bank saying, “If we cancelled this debt, it is not the poor who will benefit. It is the leaders -- who are corrupt, who are mismanaging the economies of your countries, who are undemocratic, who are engaging in wars and making it impossible for people to do even the little that they could -- who will benefit. Therefore it doesn’t make any sense to cancel.”

That’s where the challenge is today -- for African governments to decide whether they want to continue doing business as usual or whether they want to appreciate this challenge that has been brought to us. If our friends want to assist, we need to create an enabling environment in Africa.

AR: Are African governments becoming more accountable to their citizens?

Maathai: Yes, I believe that African governments at this time are actually much more responsive to the issue of governance than they have been in the past. We see more governments which have been brought into place by the ballot rather than the bullet. We have seen a lot of longstanding conflicts eventually come to an end. We have seen within the African Union a desire to provide checks and balances for good governance. They have come up with this formula of peer review. These are all good signs that Africans are willing to judge themselves, to urge each other to practice good governance and give the region peace.

We cannot afford to have a region where a few people are filthy rich and a huge number of people are in dehumanizing poverty. Definitely, we cannot use our resources to fight each other and kill each other, to the extent that we are now engaging our children to go to the forefront. By doing that we don’t have a future! To me, that is the message this [Nobel] prize brings to Africa.

AR: Should human rights and democracy be the price of admission to the world market or is it just another conditionality that burdens Africa, as some argue?

Maathai: Quite often, people think that democracy, perhaps because it’s a Western concept, a Greek word, is something that is being imposed on Africans. But I know that even within our own traditional governance systems, this concept of equity was very strong -- even stronger than it is in many Western democracies. So I believe very strongly that it is not a new concept. It is not a Western concept. It is not a conditionality that is coming from outside

When we got independence, for some reason people who became leaders at that time failed to see that the kind of lifestyle the colonial administrators were living was exploitative, undemocratic and brought conflicts. We changed guards and continued with the lifestyle. It is only the African leaders who can change that

AR: Many African leaders would say that with the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) they are changing. What is your assessment?

Maathai: All of these initiatives are very good on paper. There is even a new initiative by the prime minister of Britain, the Commission for Africa. In East Africa we have IGAD [Inter-Governmental Authority on Development], we have several economic blocs. All these initiatives mean well. The NEPAD document itself, when you read it, looks very good.

But the test of these initiatives is delivery. The challenge is in the leadership. Are they going to engage in a series of talk shops or are they going to be seriously interested in bringing out change? We have to see. The taste is in the pudding.

Ms. Maathai challenging government security guards during tree-planting drive in 1999 Ms. Maathai challenging government security guards during tree-planting drive in 1999.
Photograph: AFP / Getty Images / Simon Maina

AR:. What would you like to see wealthy countries do in response?

Maathai: The developed countries know very well what Africa needs. There has been so much debate about it. We all know that their excuses have been corruption, misgovernance and money being used for weapons. They are excuses, but to a certain extent legitimate. What would be the excuse if we really created the enabling environment? It would be interesting! We would be talking about a different era altogether. We would be saying, “There is no corruption any more. There is no misgovernance any more. There is commitment by the government.” Then the developed countries would be challenged to meet their commitments.

AR: Is there a sense that the former colonial powers must still make restitution to Africa? It is sometimes argued today that Western liability for Africa has ended.

Maathai: We are dealing with the almost inevitable consequences of a transference of power without the mental shift and governance shift that the people of Africa expected. The citizens of Africa wanted freedom. They wanted development. They wanted to move away from colonialism to development.

It is their leaders who did not take them towards that path! And for many years, the citizens believed in their leaders. That’s almost the tragedy of the African people -- they have been so trusting of their leaders. So many of the leaders are like me. They have come to the West. They have studied in the West. We gained skills and knowledge and we were expected to go back and help our people. But many of us went back and took advantage of their confidence in us -- believing that we knew better than them.

We were coming to deliver them. Well, we didn’t. We took advantage of them and we used them. We now need to tell them we are sorry we betrayed them. Now we have to do it right.

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