Wangari Maathai: 'Rich nations have a responsibility'

In an interview, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from Kenya talks about the obligations of first- and third-worlders in climate change.

Mark Thomson
Tree planting: Wangari Maathai (r.) and student (also fellow Kenyan) Hagghai Kipsat planted a tree at the Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Mass., when Maathai visited recently.

In 1977, Kenyan Activist Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Move­ment. The nonprofit's mission: to halt deforestation, soil erosion, and desertification by planting trees. Ms. Maathai, who holds degrees in biological sciences and anatomy and is a former member of Kenya's parliament, became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

To date, the Green Belt Move­ment has planted more than 30 million trees. Maathai has also campaigned for the Congo Forest Basin Fund, a multicountry effort to preserve Africa's largest tropical rain forest, to which the British government has pledged £50 million ($99 million). Last year, the UN's Billion Tree Campaign, which Maathai headed, attracted 1 billion pledges to plant trees worldwide. And now, after interethnic violence around the 2007 elections in Kenya, Maathai is working to foster peace and reconciliation between Kenya's ethnic groups.

Maathai has also attracted controversy: In 2004, a journalist quoted her as saying that HIV/AIDS was designed by "evil-minded scientists" to control black people. Maathai says she was quoted out of context and disavows such views.

A Monitor reporter caught up with her in New York City. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

What are you working on now?

Wangari Maathai: I'm a bit pre­­occupied with the postelection crisis in Kenya. The main challenge ahead is the resettlement of some half a million people who were displaced from their farms. There is an urgent need to have them resettled so that they can do their farming. They are already late for this year's planting, so I anticipate that we are going to have a very serious food shortage in Kenya.

I established an initiative we call Peace Tent. It's an effort to promote peace among the communities that were fighting each other in Kenya. There was a lot of destruction, the land was abandoned, and people were cutting trees on other people's farms. There was almost a "grab-mania" – people going into the farms that were abandoned and trying to loot whatever they could find, including trees. So there is need for people to go back so that they can also protect their land.

How can rich countries help poor ones adapt to climate change?

Rich countries, especially those that have contributed a lot toward the greenhouse gases, have a responsibility to help the poor countries get the technology that is needed. Toyota has its hybrid cars. You can't see these hybrid cars in Africa. And so Africa still uses a lot of the [older] vehicles, which are very inefficient. The rich countries have a responsibility, [but] the real responsibility lies on those developing countries. People cannot sit back and say, "We are not producing the gases, therefore we will let [others come help us]." Because when climate change comes, it's not going to punish those who did it selectively. Everybody will suffer.

What can Africans do on climate change?

Even though we are not contributing a lot [of greenhouse gases], that should not be an excuse for us to continue producing [them]. If we say that because not too many people have cars, it's OK for a government minister to have three cars, that is not really contributing toward a culture where we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Or that because we don't have too many cars, we don't need to cultivate a culture of using public means. One thing that we can do as a positive step is to plant trees.

What do conflicts like the one in Darfur indicate about the possible consequences of climate change in Africa?

One of the sad things about Kenya is that even as we are fighting over small pieces of arable land, we appear to be very unconcerned about the land we are losing to the desert. I'm quite sure that today, Kenya – if we spent a lot more time rehabilitating land that we are losing through deforestation, devegetation, overgrazing, and logging – if we were stopping all those destructive activities and instead investing in rehabilitating and reclaiming land that we are losing to the desert, we would not be in the crisis we are in. If we don't manage the resources we have, sustainably, the little that is left we will fight over.

When you address the G-8 countries – the major economic and military powers of the world – what do you tell them?

Debt continues to be a big burden. One thing that is always thrown at us is that "These are agreements that were made by your government." And we say, "These are governments that everybody knew were corrupt dictatorships, were not responsible to their people, did not listen to their people – you knew that and you did business with them." If you were doing business with a bank, and you knew the bank was irresponsible, its managers were corrupt, its managers were not reliable, you wouldn't do business with them. So why do you do business with governments that are corrupt, that are irresponsible, that are not accountable, and have no respect for their people and then come to the people and say, "You have to repay me the money I lent"?

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