The Allegheny Front Rewind: Remembering Wangari Maathai

The world has lost the founder of a movement that planted 45 million trees in Kenya. Wangari Maathai, the first African-born winner of the Nobel Peace Prize died on September 25. Now her life and accomplishments are being celebrated around the world by many. She was a scientist, environmentalist, women's rights advocate and social justice worker. For The Allegheny Front Rewindóour 20th anniversary series--Kara Holsopple has excerpts of a speech Maathai gave in Pittsburgh in 2006.

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OPEN:The world has lost the founder of a movement that planted 45 million trees in Kenya. Wangari Maathai, the first African-born winner of the Nobel Peace Prize died on September 25. Now her life and accomplishments are being celebrated around the world by many. She was a scientist, environmentalist, women's rights advocate and social justice worker. For The Allegheny Front Rewindóour 20th anniversary series--Kara Holsopple has excerpts of a speech Maathai gave in Pittsburgh in 2006.


HOLSOPPLE: Wangari Maathai left Kenya for a US educationóincluding a masters in biology at the University of Pittsburgh. Forty years later, she told an audience at Pitt how Kenyan women had schooled her.

While working towards the 1975 UN conference on women, she met a group of poor rural women. They told her they simply needed clean water and enough firewood to make a living. Her life changed course, and she made their agenda her own.

MAATHAI: I suggested that we should plant trees. They told me that they didn't know how to plant trees, I said, I don't know either. But we can learn from the foresters. And so the women agreed. And eventually the women became very skilled, partly through self teaching.

HOLSOPPLE: Her idea grew into the Green Belt Movement, which began planting trees in 1977. The millions of trees provided new livelihoods for millions of African woman. They also breathed new life into communities where harsh environments caused economic and social despair.

MAATHAI: When you look at the environment degrading, you deal with the symptoms. But very quickly as a scientist, you begin to look at the causes of the degradation.

HOLSOPPLE: In addition to leading tree plantings, Maathai tried to get to the root of the environmental and social problems

MAATHAI: Why do you think the rivers are drying up? Why are we having these massive soil erosions? Why are people complaining about diseases associated with nutrition? And yet these people are in the part of the country that I grew up, and this country used to be extremely fertile.

HOLSOPPLE: She said the answers were short-sighted government policies that favored rapid agricultural development. Tea for export was grown on hillsides where soil erosion muddied streams. Native forests were cut down to make room for faster growing trees used for lumber and paper.

Maathai and her group put pressure on the government to make changes.
This got her in trouble with the political elite in Kenya. She was publicly denounced, imprisoned and beaten in the course of working for environmental and democratic changes. But she said inequality was far more dangerous. Economic inequality and poverty caused by stressing the environment were naturally sowing the seeds for war. Maathai said the committee which awarded her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 was sending a message:

MAATHAI: We need to learn that on this planet, we have limited resources. And all of us should live responsibly, accountably, should be willing to share so that we can preempt conflict. This is the new understanding of peace.

HOLSOPPLE: Wangari Maathai died of cancer in Kenya. She was 71 years old.

For The Allegheny Front Rewind, I'm Kara Holsopple.

OUTRO: To listen to more of Wangari Maathai's 2006 speech at the University of Pittsburgh, visit our website, www.alleghenyfront.org