Written by Giulia Giuffre
Tuesday, Feb. 10, Wangari Maathai spoke to Southwestern University and the Georgetown community about human rights, government and the environment as part of the 10th annual Roy and Margaret Shilling Lecture Series.
In 1977, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. This organization encourages women’s groups to plant trees in order to restore the forests and help the ecosystem.
The Green Belt Movement started after Maathai spoke with women in the rural villages of Kenya. The women of the villages did not have adequate food, wood to produce fire for energy or drinking water.
“This was the same area where, 15 years earlier, I grew up and played in the rivers and forest,” Maathai said. “However, at this time, all of the native trees had been cut down and invasive trees were planted in their place. These were the sacred trees that were never cut before. This changed the ecosystem of Kenya, causing soil erosion, and the drying of streams and rivers. The environment was changed in the name of development. They cleared the trees and vegetation to grow coffee and tea and collect timber.”
Maathai encouraged the women that lived in the village to plant trees as a solution to the problems.
“The women did not know how to plant trees. They thought that God planted the trees,” Maathai said. “But, we were cutting the trees down so fast that God needed help. The women learned to plant trees from foresters and mostly from each other.”
In the beginning, the Green Belt Movement planted trees at homes, churches and schools. Today, they are replanting devastated forests. Maathai has helped women plant more than 30 million trees.
Some people feel that these women and the Green Belt Movement are a threat, but the women are seeing the positive results. There is less dust, more water and the water is cleaner.
“Many people are enthusiastic about the trees planted by the women of the Green Belt Movement,” Maathai said. “These trees have transformed the landscape. We are extremely proud of the leadership the women have brought to the villages.”
In 2004, Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her founding of and continued work with the Green Belt Movement in Kenya.
“The Noble Peace Prize brings attention to issues that affect the world and honor the work for justice and human rights,” Maathai said. “For the first time in 2004, the Noble Peace Prize recognized the environmental crisis and its relation to government and human rights,”
Maathai is a leading advocate for canceling the non-repayable debts of poor African countries and was elected to Kenya’s parliament in 2002.
“The Green Belt Movement recognizes that we live on a planet with limited resources,” Maathai said. “If we fail to properly manage these resources, the struggle to obtain them will cause conflict. A good government will prioritize and use natural resources efficiently and sparingly. A government that does not do so will cause conflict and needs to be changed with a vote. Many people take voting for granted, but voting is the way to hold the government accountable and get a good government.”
With this logic, Maathai mobilized a pro-democratic system that encouraged the fight for human rights and a sharing of natural resources.
“I wanted the world to see the connection between good government, conservation and human rights,” Maathai said.
Maathai has also initiated an education program that combined civic and environmental activism.
“One main concern is to save the forest,” Maathai said. “Africa has three of the world’s large forests. If these forests are destroyed, the amount of carbon emissions in the air would lead to catastrophe.”
“Don’t worry about the planet. You are the problem. The planet will eventually adapt and take care of itself. But can we adapt with it fast enough? We are in danger, not the planet. We are helping the environment to help ourselves, our children and grandchildren,” Maathai said.
After Maathai’s presentation, Jake Shrum, President of Southwestern University, signed the American College and University President Climate Commitment. The document commits the campus to set a date to become carbon neutral. On Tuesday, Southwestern became the second university in Texas to have signed the President Climate Commitment and the Talloires Declaration.
“In regards to the environmental crisis, I thought that I needed to walk quickly, but now I know I need to run. The best thing to do is study, work hard, inform yourself, learn as much as you can, and be involved,” Maathai said.
Maathai’s presentation impressed many students.
“I was very glad to hear her talk about the urgency of the task we have to combat global warming, an issue that has been on people’s minds for a long time,” said sophomore Margaret Durham. “I was glad to hear her talk about it in a fresh, new way.”
“I hope to meet many other women like her who have so much passion for the causes that help the earth the most: the protection of the earth and its people,” said sophomore and Shilling Lecture panelist Natalie Thaddeus.
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