activism environment

What we can learn from Wangari Maathai

On Monday I reviewed Wangari Maathai’s biography, Unbowed. But Wangari Maathai Day is actually today and I wanted to reflect a little more on what we can learn from the life of Kenya’s best known environmentalist.

Maathai hailed from the Rift Valley, where I spent some very formative years myself. I witnessed the majesty of Kenya’s forests and its wildlife there, but also the effects of forest fires, deforestation, erosion and drought. My environmentalism has been shaped by some of the same forces as Maathai’s and so I feel an affinity with her story. Nevertheless, I’m aware that this is my perspective, as a white man on the other side of the world. With that said, here are a few things that I think we can learn from her story.

Everything is connected
Maathai is known for the holistic nature of her work. She was an environmentalist but also worked on civil rights, democracy, education and poverty. All these things weave together. You cannot protect the natural world without confronting the threats to it. That means engaging in politics. For that you need to teach people about their rights and the government’s responsibilities. To be effective in using those rights, you need people who are literate and articulate and confident in holding the authorities to account, which leads you into education. There is no green silo for environmental issues.

Environmentalism is peace work
The Nobel Peace Prize hadn’t gone to an environmentalist before. Maathai was the first, and it marked an insight from the Nobel committee: that environmentalism was not just about nature, but was about non-violence, conflict avoidance and social justice. Plenty of people already knew this of course, but it was a high profile connection. The Peace Prize has since gone to Al Gore and the IPCC, and you can place your bets for Greta Thunberg if you are so inclined.

Feminism can be inclusive
Maathai’s tree planting grew out of her work with women. The Greenbelt Movement that she led was a project of the National Council of Women of Kenya until it was hived off as a separate organisation. Her work was at the intersection of sexism and rural poverty. One of her most powerful actions was a year-long occupation of All Saints Cathedral by mothers demanding the release of their sons who were held as political prisoners. (If this had happened in the West, there’d already be a movie) Maathai was a feminist and her movement was women-led, but men and boys were welcome and had roles to play. Projects were for the benefit of whole of the community, not just the women. In Maathai’s work we see a prototype for an inclusive African feminism that is still emerging.

Start where people are
Maathai’s focus on tree planting was practical. It was something that ordinary people could do, without permission and without a great deal of resources. It empowered them because it helped them to focus on what they could do, rather than complain about all the things that the government wasn’t doing for them. This is a guiding principle for any effective community-based environmental advocacy, and is at the heart of Transition Towns or organisations like Possible. The climate crisis is overwhelming if we look at the whole of it. So break it down. Start where you are, and work outwards.

Trees are political
Planting trees is one of the most universally accepted environmental solutions. Politicians of all stripes are happy to pose with a spade from time to time. Even Trump could be coaxed into planting a tree at the White House (with a golden shovel naturally), and backed the World Economic Forum’s ‘trillion trees’ initiative. However, Maathai’s story is a lesson in how complicated it becomes the moment you move away from tree planting itself. Conserving existing trees, funding their care, finding locations to reforest, and stopping development on forested land are all much more politically fraught. Everybody wants to be in the photo when the tree is planted, but where is everybody when the tree is cut down? We should plant more trees, but we should also focus much more on growing them. And I’d like to see more pictures of politicians watering or pruning trees.

Environmentalism is not a luxury
There is a recurring theme in the popular press in Britain that ‘being green’ is a middle class pursuit, a luxury for pampered white people or a ‘first world problem’. This is a nonsense even in Britain, where the poorest are most exposed to air pollution, and have less access to green space. But it’s even more false internationally. Globally, white middle class people are a minority in protecting nature. It isn’t about ‘being green’, ‘doing your bit’, or sentimental concern for wildlife. It’s about survival, about putting food on the table, about protecting the health of your loved ones. Reading Maathai’s story, or those of non-Western activists generally, is a good reminder that environmentalism comes in many forms. And in many places it is much more dangerous, more urgent and more brave.

History judges differently
Finally, it’s worth noting that Maathai is not universally admired, especially in Kenya. She was too controversial, and broke too many taboos about being a ‘good African woman‘. In her own lifetime she was at times a pariah figure. It’s not always true, but history often offers a better view of someone’s legacy. The controversies and the politics of the day have passed, and only what stands the test of time remains. This will be true of those people or movements caught up in arguments today, such as Black Lives Matter, school strikes for the climate, or Extinction Rebellion. That’s not to say that everyone gets proved right in the end, only that it’s impossible to read the impact of a movement in the present, and we should not be too hasty in ascribing either success or failure.

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