Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, is often called the Tree Woman — and for good reason. In 1977, she founded the Green Belt Movement, an organization dedicated to planting trees and educating people in Kenya — and all over the world — about the importance of conservation. To date, the Green Belt Movement has planted more than 40 million trees, and the organization has played a key role in the creation of the Billion Tree Campaign, a new United Nations initiative to plant one billion trees worldwide by the end of 2007. Plenty spoke with Maathai about global warming in Africa, the connection between environmental and humanitarian crises, and the importance of optimism in the fight to save the planet.

You’ve often pointed out that some ancient African traditions — like the ones you grew up with — are actually “green.” Can you give us an example?

There were some trees that were considered sacred. They were never cut, just left to grow and fall on their own. One such tree is the wild fig tree. Because it wasn’t cut, it sent a lot of roots very deep, and it fixed itself very firmly into the ground, and it therefore helped to stabilize the soil in these highlands where we lived. Also, because the roots went so deep, they connected with the groundwater system and helped bring water from underground reserves to the upper levels. Quite often, whenever you would find these trees, you would find a stream.

Do you think that modern Africans — and people in general — have lost sight of those traditions?

As people move into the cities, we tend to forget our connection to the earth.  When we congregate in the cities, we build houses, we create concrete, and we literally cut ourselves off from nature and the way nature operates.

How can we begin to remember and implement them?

We can start with something understandable and something that all of us participate in: the creation of greenhouse gases. And on a personal level, you can make a decision that you want to understand how nature operates, and work with it in your own backyard. The Billion Tree Campaign is partly to raise awareness about these issues among ordinary people.

In your opinion, has global warming already begun to affect some parts of the African continent?

Yes, very seriously. We have seen that the glaciers on Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro have melted. And scientists tell us that they have melted faster this time than they have in the past 100 years. We have seen with our naked eyes many rivers that used to be big rivers; they are now small, and many streams have dried up. Although this can be attributed to interference with the forest, especially deforestation, it’s also attributed to climate change.

What particular challenges do you think Africa will face as climate change intensifies?

For one, we know that it will likely interfere with the availability of freshwater. This will probably create conflict and war among people. Many of the wars we fight in Africa are actually over resources, whether it’s between communities themselves, or between Africans and people from outside Africa who are interested in its resources and find it necessary to access them. People fight over water, land, farms, and grazing ground. We know that in Darfur, one issue that causes conflict is grazing ground. This situation can only get worse if the environmental crisis continues.

And it’s important to think about this now so we can begin to find solutions. Absolutely. We have been saying that the pastoral communities, for example, need to cut down on their animals. You cannot have so many animals that you completely degrade your land, and then when drought comes you lose everything you have, including your own life. It’s also very important to protect forests, and this is one of the reasons I’m advocating for the protection of the Congo’s ecosystem. It’s one of the major ecosystems that we need in Africa, but also in the world. It’s very highly threatened by both legal and illegal logging.

 

Even after seeing widespread environmental degradation in Africa, you’ve remained optimistic. How have you managed to maintain that optimism?

It’s important to maintain your optimism because the alternative is to give up. And that would be terrible. So we have to continue telling people that if they don’t do something, the result will be much worse. I always believe that people can change. I just hope we will have even more change before it is too late.

Story by Kiera Butler. This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2007. The story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2007.