Wangari Maathai, founder of Kenya's Green Belt Movement, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize and 1991 Goldman Prize, died of cancer on Sunday in Nairobi. Her work began in the 1970s when she organized poor women to plant trees in her native land. Forty million trees later, she was an internationally recognized leader in poverty alleviation, environmentalism, and women's rights. In 2004, Maathai received news of her Nobel award as she was driving toward Nairobi in the company of Sierra correspondent Mia MacDonald. Here is MacDonald's interview with her, from the March/April 2005 magazine.
On a wintry Norwegian afternoon last December, Wangari Maathai stood at a bright blue podium in Oslo City Hall to accept the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, the first environmentalist and first African woman to be so honored.
"We are called to assist the earth," she said, "to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own — indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty, and wonder." When she received her Nobel medal, the crowd rose in applause, and celebratory ululations from Kenyan women reverberated throughout the vast space.
Only three years earlier, Maathai had been under arrest for protesting the human-rights and environmental abuses of Kenya's former strongman president, Daniel arap Moi. Since 1977, she had organized a network of rural women into the Green Belt Movement, which planted 30 million trees while also sowing seeds of democracy. She was beaten, harassed, and jailed for her efforts — until December 2002, when she was voted into parliament in Kenya's first free elections in a generation, and soon after appointed deputy minister for the environment.
Maathai got news of her Nobel award one morning as her van bounced along rough roads past pineapple plantations outside Nairobi, just as she was settling in for an interview with — me. The Norwegian ambassador was initially unable to get through on her cell because Maathai was, in her typically hands-on fashion, setting up the public-address system for an upcoming meeting.
When he called back and relayed the astonishing news, Maathai put her hand in the air, exclaimed, "Oh, wow," and got teary as she hung up the phone. She soon regained her equanimity and, once she arrived in Nyeri, her parliamentary district in central Kenya, planted a tree, knees on the ground, hands in the red soil.
Sierra: Why did you focus your initial efforts on trees?
Wangari Maathai: In the mid-1970s, I was an officer in the National Council of Women of Kenya, and I found myself talking to rural women about the problems they were facing. One of the issues was not enough energy — energy from firewood. Another was a lack of clean drinking water.
We all know where water comes from, from forested mountains. Another problem was malnutrition — a lot of farmers had switched from producing food for household consumption to producing cash crops like coffee and tea to sell in the international market. Listening to the women talk, I came to understand the linkage between environmental degradation and the needs of communities.
"Why not plant the trees?" I thought. It seemed reasonable and doable. Anybody can dig a hole and put a tree inside and water it and nurture it. Something wonderful happens when you plant a seed. Trees provide a source of fuel. They provide material for building and fencing, fruits, fodder, shade, and aesthetic beauty. Trees also offered women a small income; the Green Belt Movement paid them for each seedling they successfully raised.
Sierra: How did tree-planting lead to pro-democracy action?
Maathai:As people talked to us, we would ask, "Where do you think these problems come from?" Almost all would blame the government. So we created a movement that was not only about taking action to protect the environment, but also about citizens' responsibility to demand a better government.
The government didn't like this. The Green Belt Movement became a target, not because we were planting trees but because we were explaining how trees disappear and why it is important for citizens to stand up for their environment and their rights.
Sierra: The Nobel Committee gave you the Peace Prize for your contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace. Have you always seen the connections?
Maathai: If a clean and healthy environment is a right, you cannot gain this right unless you have a democratic government that respects and acknowledges rights. If we do not have citizens who acknowledge these rights, and also assume their responsibilities, we're not going to have a clean and good environment. If people struggle over resources, you're going to have conflicts, not peace.
Sierra: For decades you were a leading member of the opposition, but now you're a deputy government minister. What has that been like?
Maathai: Initially, I was not very keen on getting into parliament. But eventually I felt that after so many years, [it was time] to try and change it from the inside. Sometimes things in government move so slowly — but I believe it is important for those of us who work from the outside to get into the inside and see how we can help. Also, I am one of very few women to have had this opportunity.
Sierra: You've seen tough times over the years, but you never gave up. How did you keep going?
Maathai:I knew we did not have to live like this. As long as there was a way we could break the cycle of poverty and disempowerment, I found the energy to continue. Also, I was deeply encouraged by our successful campaign: When you planted a tree, it grew.
Sierra: What does the Nobel Peace Prize mean to you?
Maathai: It is a wonderful recognition. Honestly, I am still pinching myself. It is an honor like no other and a perfect crown at the end of a long struggle. The prize also recognized that women in many countries struggle, but nobody knows about it; many people ignore you and consider you a nuisance.
Sierra: What message does the prize send?
Maathai: That bottom-up development produces results, and that the solutions to African problems will most likely be found among Africans. The Nobel Peace Prize is also a recognition of all the work done at the grassroots level. So this comes with a lot of messages to me, the people of Africa, the women of Africa, the women of the world, pro-democracy movements, and advocates for peace. This prize has recognized all of our work in a collective way, even though it came to me.
Sierra: What is next for you?
Maathai:I hope that I will be able to do more, including within the government, which has found my approaches a bit difficult to absorb and adopt. I am used to having only a few shillings in my pocket, but a good amount of the [$1.3 million] prize money will be spent establishing the Wangari Maathai Foundation so that groups here in Kenya and abroad have an opportunity to do what I have done. We still have a lot of work to do. We know that the little we are doing is making positive change. If we can multiply that several million times, we can improve the world.
--Photo by Green Belt Movement