Wangari Muta Maathai, the iconic Kenyan environmentalist who became the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2004, speaks in simple, direct sentences that brim with inner fire and conviction that comes from long years of solitary struggle. Maathai’s burning faith in a green world has borne rich fruits: the Green Belt Movement she founded in the mid-seventies has enriched the earth with 31 million trees.
Maathai is an elected member of Kenyan parliament and has also served as Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural between January 2003 and November 2005. A pioneering academic, a gusty politician who always stood up for her hard-won beliefs and a leading human rights campaigner, she became “a source of inspiration for everyone in Africa fighting for sustainable development, democracy and peace,” in the words of the Nobel Committee that recognised her outstanding work three years back.
India has honoured the 67-year-old environmentalist with the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding. The award was presented to Maathai by President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam at an elegant ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan (presidential palace) in March that was attended by Prime Minister Manmhan Singh and his senior cabinet ministers. “Her mission has to spread to all parts of the planet. The award is in recognition of her persistent and courageous struggle for democracy, human rights and environmental conservation,” Kalam said.
In this conversation with Manish Chand, Maathai speaks about her unquenchable passion for the green cause, the emerging breed of new leaders in Africa, her impression of India and what India and Africa can do together to create a more equitable, clean and harmonious world.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q) Your passion for environment and your lifelong commitment to the green cause has earned accolades all over the world. How did it all start?
A) I grew up in the Kenyan countryside. That experience in the countryside when the environment was pristine has stayed with me since then. In those days, there were no cash crops, no coffee, no tea. I grew up seeing shorgum, palm trees, sweet potatoes which were all very economical food crops. The rivers were so clean that we could drink water straight from them. There were no agro-chemicals. That’s the background I knew as a child and that’s what influenced me a lot. Later on, I saw the land degrading. We could no longer drink water straight from the rivers. The rivers were full of silt because forests upstream were cleared. That’s the time I thought I must do something about it. If we really understand the role environment plays in our life and environmental education becomes part of school curricula, then a lot of people would be concerned about environment and would encourage others to do something about it.
Q) How do you see the impact of globalisation on environment?
A) To a very large extent, globalisation is a threat to the environment in countries that are poor and underdeveloped. Underdeveloped, poor countries are looking to developed countries and corporations to get them out of poverty. It’s very easy for these corporations to exploit the resources and not to share it with the poor locals. There should be a code of ethics to ensure that they do business on the basis of justice and fair play. Unless you can appreciate that the planet is very small and resources limited, globalisation will do a lot of damage to poor and developing countries.
Q) You have been in politics for long and has often criticised corruption in governance. What do you think of the quality of leadership in Africa? Do you see a new breed of leadership emerging in Africa?
A) Now, we are seeing a new breed of leadership, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A lot of wars fought in Africa were proxy wars that were waged by superpowers for influence over the continent. Unfortunately, Africans allowed themselves to fight wars which were not their wars. But today there is a new effort by the new African leadership to bring in more democratic and responsible governance in Africa and to protect the African people from the kind of tragedies which you have described. As a response to that African leaders introduced a new organisation, the African Union, instead of the old Organisation of African Unity. It’s an effort by Africans to look at themselves and the way they govern themselves and try to improve governance. I have been asked by the AU to join the Economic and Social Council (ECOSC) – an advisory organ which primarily comprises civil society. It’s one of the indicators to me that a new African leadership is emerging because the African leadership in the past didn’t have anything to do with civil society. They regarded civil society as an enemy of the country. Which is part of the reason I was persecuted. That the African heads of state are inviting civil society to be an advisory organ is an indication that there is a new willingness to embrace the African people and give them better leadership.
Q) Some say Africa holds the key to the UN reforms, especially the expansion of the UN Security Council. Do you think attempts to reform the UN reforms will succeed?
A) From the viewpoint of the UN reforms, they are looking at Africa as a bloc. And they are visualising two seats for Africa in an expanded Security Council. But the problem is that Africa has 53 countries and it is so fragmented. Africa has to work towards reducing this fragmentation because that’s been part of its weakness. Maybe for some it was easier to deal with a fragmented Africa. Now, the AU is aware of it and has been holding discussions towards a more united Africa. And that’s a positive sign. A united Africa would have a much stronger voice in the UN than a fragmented Africa.
Q) How do you see the controversy in India over special economic zones? You also have an environment versus development debate in Africa…
A) We do have some of these special economic areas. They appear to be good ideas as they create employment. However, some people complain that they exploit people and pay very little to them. The governments have to make choice. Good and responsible governments will make a choice, which is good for the common good, which is good not just for the current government, but good in the long term. The governments are often confronted with the problems of poverty and unemployment. In India, for instance, we are quite impressed with the rate of development. But there are still millions who continue to live in poverty in India. The government is trying to raise the quality of living of people. How do you do it? Sometimes, the government’s choice is very difficult. It’s very important for the governments to open up to civil society and to dialogue with citizens. But then that usually is the problem. The governments don’t want to consult their citizens and engage in dialogue with them. And that can be very frustrating to civil society organisations that are trying to protect the environment. When there is a dialogue, the governments can explain themselves to the people and the tension is reduced. I have been in the government so I know sometimes the government has to make very painful choices. But it’s also a responsibility of civil society organisations to continue egging their governments to be responsible and make choices that do not jeopardise the livelihood of people.
Q) This is your first visit to India. What are your impressions of this country and its people?
A) It’s an extraordinary country. I have come as a guest of the state; so I have received extraordinary hospitality. I have seen the wonderful leadership of India which I hold in very high esteem. A country that has good leadership moves forward. India, from the very beginning, from the time of Mahatma Gandhi to Nehru to Indira Gandhi and now the current leadership, has been very lucky in the kind of leadership it has had. The leadership that has been responsible to people – the kind of leadership Africa can only hope for.
Also, talking of impressions, I have been very impressed by Delhi. I have never seen a city that is so green. The streets are wide and lined with trees. I would like to appeal to all cities to emulate Delhi. It’s very beautiful.
Q) What kind of relationship do you envisage between a new India and a new Africa?
A) Africa and India have been in a long-term relationship. Indian leaders like Gandhi and Nehru have been source of inspiration to Africa. India was ruled by the British and so were we. We were therefore very inspired by the struggle and success of India. There are other vital connections. Mahatma Gandhi started his campaign for justice in South Africa. There is a very strong linkage between the Indian government and the African Union. I can only hope we shall continue to act together and with the new leadership in Africa, we shall benefit from the experience of India. India is a very dynamic, democratic society. It’s also a very diverse society – so many religions, so many languages and so many cultures. This diversity could have sparked divisions in the society, but on the contrary this has only strengthened India.
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.
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