Friday, April 22, 2011

Planting Trees for Peace

In 2004, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

I heard her give her Nobel speech one chilly December morning while I was flipping channels and was quite struck by her story.  This woman has such passion and strength, and had such courage in the face of immeasurable obstacles.  On top of all that, she is just plain feisty.  We need feisty.  Lisa Merton, the co-director of the film TAKING ROOT, attested to this feistiness when she came to our college to talk about the making of the documentary (clip above).  I invited Lisa to come speak about her experience working with Maathai and to share her film with our PSU students a few years ago.  I'm so glad I did.  It is a moving and epic story -- truly a testament to the power of ordinary people and trees to transform the planet!

Kenya was under a harsh dictatorship in the 1970's when she founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women's rights.  Maathai made the connection between the environment and human dignity -- impoverished women in rural Kenya did not have access to the resources they needed because their forests were so degraded by decades of exploitive colonial land use practices which continued under the corrupt post-Independence government.  

When Maathai tried to empower local women by asking them to plant trees, she became a target of the brutal regime's attacks.  She was arrested, tortured, molested and subject to death threats by government authorities.  She would not be silenced, however, and the people rallied to her cause.

Today the Green Belt Movement has planted ONE BILLION trees on this planet.  Amazing what a little hope and a lot of hands can do!

Here is an excerpt from her inspiring Nobel Lecture, the full speech can be found at the Nobel Prize website, link below.  Take the time to read it, it is worth it:

In 1977, when we started the Green Belt Movement, I was partly responding to needs identified by rural women, namely lack of firewood, clean drinking water, balanced diets, shelter and income.
Throughout Africa, women are the primary caretakers, holding significant responsibility for tilling the land and feeding their families. As a result, they are often the first to become aware of environmental damage as resources become scarce and incapable of sustaining their families.
The women we worked with recounted that unlike in the past, they were unable to meet their basic needs. This was due to the degradation of their immediate environment as well as the introduction of commercial farming, which replaced the growing of household food crops. But international trade controlled the price of the exports from these small-scale farmers and a reasonable and just income could not be guaranteed. I came to understand that when the environment is destroyed, plundered or mismanaged, we undermine our quality of life and that of future generations.
Tree planting became a natural choice to address some of the initial basic needs identified by women. Also, tree planting is simple, attainable and guarantees quick, successful results within a reasonable amount time. This sustains interest and commitment.
So, together, we have planted over 30 million trees that provide fuel, food, shelter, and income to support their children's education and household needs. The activity also creates employment and improves soils and watersheds. Through their involvement, women gain some degree of power over their lives, especially their social and economic position and relevance in the family. This work continues.
Initially, the work was difficult because historically our people have been persuaded to believe that because they are poor, they lack not only capital, but also knowledge and skills to address their challenges. Instead they are conditioned to believe that solutions to their problems must come from ‘outside'. Further, women did not realize that meeting their needs depended on their environment being healthy and well managed. They were also unaware that a degraded environment leads to a scramble for scarce resources and may culminate in poverty and even conflict. They were also unaware of the injustices of international economic arrangements.
In order to assist communities to understand these linkages, we developed a citizen education program, during which people identify their problems, the causes and possible solutions. They then make connections between their own personal actions and the problems they witness in the environment and in society. They learn that our world is confronted with a litany of woes: corruption, violence against women and children, disruption and breakdown of families, and disintegration of cultures and communities. They also identify the abuse of drugs and chemical substances, especially among young people. There are also devastating diseases that are defying cures or occurring in epidemic proportions. Of particular concern are HIV/AIDS, malaria and diseases associated with malnutrition.
On the environment front, they are exposed to many human activities that are devastating to the environment and societies. These include widespread destruction of ecosystems, especially through deforestation, climatic instability, and contamination in the soils and waters that all contribute to excruciating poverty.
In the process, the participants discover that they must be part of the solutions. They realize their hidden potential and are empowered to overcome inertia and take action. They come to recognize that they are the primary custodians and beneficiaries of the environment that sustains them.
Entire communities also come to understand that while it is necessary to hold their governments accountable, it is equally important that in their own relationships with each other, they exemplify the leadership values they wish to see in their own leaders, namely justice, integrity and trust.
Although initially the Green Belt Movement's tree planting activities did not address issues of democracy and peace, it soon became clear that responsible governance of the environment was impossible without democratic space. Therefore, the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya. Citizens were mobilised to challenge widespread abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement. In Nairobi 's Uhuru Park, at Freedom Corner, and in many parts of the country, trees of peace were planted to demand the release of prisoners of conscience and a peaceful transition to democracy.
Through the Green Belt Movement, thousands of ordinary citizens were mobilized and empowered to take action and effect change. They learned to overcome fear and a sense of helplessness and moved to defend democratic rights.
In time, the tree also became a symbol for peace and conflict resolution, especially during ethnic conflicts in Kenya when the Green Belt Movement used peace trees to reconcile disputing communities. During the ongoing re-writing of the Kenyan constitution, similar trees of peace were planted in many parts of the country to promote a culture of peace. Using trees as a symbol of peace is in keeping with a widespread African tradition. For example, the elders of the Kikuyu carried a staff from the thigi tree that, when placed between two disputing sides, caused them to stop fighting and seek reconciliation. Many communities in Africa have these traditions.

It seems to me that the world can use a few more staffs made of the thigi trees just about now.  Maybe Mr. Obama, our own Nobel Peace Prize winner, has forgotten the roots of his ancestors.  It would be wise for all of us to remember the lessons once taught by the African elders and find a place for reconciliation and peace in our hearts...