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The Challenge for Africa: A Conversation With Wangari Maathai

April 13, 2009 // 2:45pm5:00pm
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Africa Program
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"Almost every conflict in Africa you can point at has something to do with competition over resources in an environment which has bad governance," said Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement and recipient of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, at an April 13, 2009, event co-sponsored by the Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program and Africa Program and the International Gateway at the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center. Maathai discussed her new book, The Challenge for Africa, with Environmental Change and Security Program Director Geoff Dabelko.

"This is why I wrote this book: Because I really was challenging us as Africans to think outside the box and to begin to see why when we seem to move forward, we make two steps forward, and we make one step backward, and so we look like we are not moving," said Maathai. "Some of these issues are complex, they are difficult—but they have a lot to do with the way we have decided to manage our resources and to manage our politics and economics."

The Three Legs of Stability

Maathai used the traditional African three-legged stool as a metaphor for what she views as the three essential components of a stable society: sustainable environmental management, democratic governance, and a culture of peace. "Those legs are chiseled by a craftsman…[who] chisels all the three legs at the same time, in order to create a balance," she said. "If we don't have these three legs, no matter who comes, and with whatever [loans or aid], we shall never develop."

Land, Politics, and Ethnicity: An Explosive Combination

Maathai explained that in the absence of democratic governance and sustainable environmental management, natural resources have repeatedly ignited conflict in her native Kenya. For instance, the advent of private land ownership during colonialism pitted Maasai herders, who need large tracts of land to graze their cattle, against Kikuyu farmers, who for the first time obtained deeds to their land and began to erect fences to mark the boundaries.

In addition, Maathai noted that politicians often use Kenya's ethnic divisions and land scarcity to whip up animosity toward internal migrants and bolster their own re-election prospects. "If you don't, then, therefore, ensure that the resources within the country are equitably distributed, and you encourage these prejudgments that communities have against each other, you're going to have conflict," she said.

Holistic Approach Is Key to Successful Development

The Green Belt Movement began as a small, grassroots project that envisioned tree-planting as a way to address rural women's needs, including firewood, food, clean water, and soil erosion. "Even though that's how we started, it very quickly became clear to me that these are symptoms, and therefore we needed to get to the causes. And it is in search of the causes that eventually led me into understanding how interconnected these issues were," said Maathai, who urged governments, development agencies, and nonprofits to adopt an integrated approach to development.

"Unless you deal with the cause, you are wasting your time. You can use all the money you want for all the years you want; you will not solve the problem, because you are dealing with a symptom. So we need to go outside that box and deal with development in a holistic way."

"I can't say, ‘Let us deal with governance this time, and don't worry about the resources.' Or, ‘Don't worry about peace today, or conflicts that are going on; let us worry about management of resources.' I saw that it was very, very important to use the tree-planting as an entry point," explained Maathai.

"Even though it is the women who provide the drive for planting trees—partly because it is they who suffer when the environment is destroyed, it is also they who work in the field—once we are in the community, we will have to deal with the women, deal with the men, deal with the children, deal with the livestock, deal with everything," said Maathai.

Climate Change, Forests, and Environmental Justice

According to Maathai, 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are due to deforestation and forest degradation—more than the percentage due to transportation. She is working with Avoided Deforestation Partners to make avoiding deforestation part of the Copenhagen agreements—a step that would not only slow global climate change, but also help those who are directly dependent on natural resources like forests for their livelihoods, and therefore most vulnerable to climate change. "This is the one issue which really comes to tell us that indeed, the planet is a small village, and all of us are in this little village together."

Drafted by Rachel Weisshaar.

 
Event Speakers List: 
  • Founder, Green Belt Movement; Recipient, Nobel Peace Prize (2004)
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