September 30, 2009
Wangari Maathai speaks at the Wooster Forum
WOOSTER, Ohio, Sept. 30 - Wangari Maathai recounted her
remarkable personal journey, and the impact that journey has had on both the
environment and political life in her native Kenya, for an attentive audience
of several hundred last night in the final event of this year’s Wooster Forum.
Born in Nyeri, Kenya, Maathai was the first woman in East or
Central Africa to earn a doctoral degree, from the University of Nairobi, where
she taught veterinary anatomy. It was at the university that she began listening
to women from the countryside complaining about the problems they faced,
including poor harvests and lack of clean drinking water, firewood, and forage
for their livestock.
“I wondered what had happened to the country where I grew
up,” Maathai said.
What had happened was the displacement of native forests and
vegetation to make way for cash crops like coffee and tea, leading to erosion,
soil depletion, and the silting up of rivers and streams.
So in 1977, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, which
provided financial incentives to women’s groups to plant and nurture native
species of trees on their farms and in school and church compounds. In the 32
years since its founding, the Green Belt Movement has been responsible for the
planting of more than 40 million trees.
From the Green Belt Movement’s initial focus on planting
trees, Maathai said, it was a natural progression to environmental and civic
education on “how we govern ourselves and how that governance helps or hinders
our care of the environment.”
“One way you empower people,” Maathai told the crowd, “is to
first make them understand how they are creating some of the very problems they
are complaining about” rather than blaming them all on outside forces, like the
government. That way they can focus on solving the problems that are of their
own making, at the same time that they work in the political arena to address
those that truly are outside their direct control.
In Maathai’s case, that logic led to working to restore
Kenya’s multi-party democracy, and ultimately to her election to parliament in
2003. In 2004, Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to
sustainable development, democracy, and peace.”
Maathai ended by urging her listeners to do their part to
protect the environment by heeding the simple exhortation to “reduce, reuse,
recycle” and also to get involved in a larger initiative, such as the United
Nations’ Billion Tree Campaign, which has been responsible for planting seven
billion trees worldwide since 2006.
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