“My Life is My Message”

Went to Santa Barbara last night to hear Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, speak. She is the first environmentalist given the award, and said more than once that she believed she was given the award because the prize committee wanted to awake people to the connection between peace and sustainability.

Maathai, a sturdy woman with an beaming, unlined faced, spoke simply but powerfully about the importance of "embracing our problems."

She focused on how we must help people look at issues directly, and returned again and again to a favorite phrase: "The bottom is heavy." She helped launch the Green Belt movement that has planted thirty million trees in Kenya and other nations in Africa, but insists that her greatest achievement is not planting the trees, but making sure they survive, and for that, she says, we need to provide motivation, understanding, and incentives to local people, most of whom are poor and uneducated.

When the movement first began, they would go into a community and organize three-day seminars. On the first day they would ask people: "What are the problems in your community?"

And people would list problems.

On the second day, they would ask people: "Where do these problems come from?"

And the people would say: "It is the government." But the Green Belt people would continue to ask questions, such as, why is the water dirty? Because it rains very hard. Yes, but it always rains very hard; why is it the river dirty now? Because people live too close to the river. Why do people live too close to the river? Because they need the water. They cannot cultivate further away from the river, because the soil has washed away? Why has the soil washed away? Because the trees are not there to protect it. Why aren’t the trees there to protect it? Because they have been cut down. Why have they been cut down? And so on…until the solution became plain: They must plant trees.

The seminars were an exercise in "breaking the inertia" and motivating people to plant trees, and grow crops using furrows and terraces, Maathai said. When it came time to plant trees, she succeeded in motivating women (but not men, who refused to work on this new project). She went to train them with Kenyan foresters, but discovered something:

"A lot of professional people can be very complicated."

So she found ways to teach women how to plant trees without using technical terms and jargon. "And what do you know, when the trees grow up? They look just like the other trees!"

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to fully report on the speech, but here are some other wonderful quotes from Maathai, whose appearance was well-attended…even Oprah Winfrey was in the crowd!

"You know, when people are really rich, you sometimes don’t know what to tell them."

(As my wife Val pointed out, a notable hush fell over the Santa Barbara crowd at that moment.)

She talked about visiting Japan, and helping the Environmental Minister there rediscover an ancient Japanese concept–Mot Tai Nai–which is roughly comparable, she says, to the American concept of Reuse, Reduce, Recycle.

She mentioned a discussion about the Kyoto Protocols while in Japan, and said that "millions of Americans are living by the spirit of the Kyoto Protocols, so never mind what is happening in Washington, D.C."

My personal favorite? She talked about the dangers of consumerism, which she pithily pointed out can result in making purchases and coming home and discovering that: "You have not what you really need, but what you want."

Below the fold is a version of the speech she gave after winning the Nobel Prize (just one of her many, many honors).

I asked her if she thinks there’s a connection between our fast-paced Western style of life and the difficulty we have living in harmony with our planet, and our home. She wasn’t sure about that, but pointed out that in the Book of Genesis, God spends six days making our home, and all the other animals, and making sure their lives are good. Only then, at the last minute–"almost as an afterthought"–does he create Man. She added that the plants and the animals could survive very well without us, but we could not survive without them. Good point, Wangari!


Nairobi, Kenya –

When I was growing up in Nyeri in central Kenya, there was no word for desert in my mother tongue, Kikuyu. Our land was fertile and forested. But today in Nyeri, as in much of Africa and the developing world, water sources have dried up, the soil is parched and unsuitable for growing food, and conflicts over land are common. So it should come as no surprise that I was inspired to plant trees to help meet the basic needs of rural women. As a member of the National Council of Women of Kenya in the early 1970’s, I listened as women related what they wanted but did not have enough of: energy, clean drinking water and nutritious food.

My response was to begin planting trees with them, to help heal the land and break the cycle of poverty. Trees stop soil erosion, leading to water conservation and increased rainfall. Trees provide fuel, material for building and fencing, fruits, fodder, shade and beauty.

As household managers in rural and urban areas of the developing world, women are the first to encounter the effects of ecological stress. It forces them to walk farther to get wood for cooking and heating, to search for clean water and to find new sources of food as old ones disappear.

My idea evolved into the Green Belt Movement, made up of thousands of groups, primarily of women, who have planted 30 million trees across Kenya. The women are paid a small amount for each seedling they grow, giving them an income as well as improving their environment. The movement has spread to countries in East and Central Africa.

Through this work, I came to see that environmental degradation by poor communities was both a source of their problems and a symptom. Growing crops on steep mountain slopes leads to loss of topsoil and land deterioration.

Similarly, deforestation causes rivers to dry up and rainfall patterns to shift, which, in turn, result in much lower crop yields and less land for grazing.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, as I was encouraging farmers to plant trees on their land, I also discovered that corrupt government agents were responsible for much of the deforestation by illegally selling off land and trees to well-connected developers.

In the early 1990’s, the livelihoods, the rights and even the lives of many Kenyans in the Rift Valley were lost when elements of President Daniel arap Moi’s government encouraged ethnic communities to attack one another over land. Supporters of the ruling party got the land, while those in the pro-democracy movement were displaced. This was one of the government’s ways of retaining power; if communities were kept busy fighting over land, they would have less opportunity to demand democracy.

Land issues in Kenya are complex and easily exploited by politicians. Communities needed to understand and be sensitized about the history of land ownership and distribution in Kenya and Africa. We held seminars on human rights, governing and reducing conflict.

In time, the Green Belt Movement became a leading advocate of reintroducing multiparty democracy and free and fair elections in Kenya. Through public education, political advocacy and protests, we also sought to protect open spaces and forests from unscrupulous developers, who were often working hand in hand with politicians, through public education, political advocacy and protests.

Mr. Moi’s government strongly opposed advocates for democracy and environmental rights; harassment, beatings, death threats and jail time followed, for me and for many others.

Fortunately, in 2002, Kenyans realized their dream and elected a democratic government. What we’ve learned in Kenya — the symbiotic relationship between the sustainable management of natural resources and democratic governance — is also relevant globally.

Indeed, many local and international wars, like those in West and Central Africa and the Middle East, continue to be fought over resources. In the process, human rights, democracy and democratic space are denied.

I believe the Nobel Committee recognized the links between the environment, democracy and peace and sought to bring them to worldwide attention with the Peace Prize that I am accepting today.

The committee, I believe, is seeking to encourage community efforts to restore the earth at a time when we face the ecological crises of deforestation, desertification, water scarcity and a lack of biological diversity.

Unless we properly manage resources like forests, water, land, minerals and oil, we will not win the fight against poverty. And there will not be peace. Old conflicts will rage on and new resource wars will erupt unless we change the path we are on.

To celebrate this award, and the work it recognizes of those around the world, let me recall the words of Gandhi: My life is my message. Also, plant a tree.

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

4 thoughts on ““My Life is My Message”

  1. “You know, when people are really rich, you sometimes don’t know what to tell them.”

    Thanks for the great report. And your waterfall photo in the post above is just plain awesome.


  2. My life is a mess….my mom never gives as mony because she haves to keep a roof over our heads….And all i want to do is meet chris brown in person…….i love his so much but i never got to see him in person because my mom dont have the mony for me to see him so all im asking u is can i meet him please….And i want to take danceing lesson but i can so can u please help me……love ya


  3. My life is a mess….my mom never gives as mony because she haves to keep a roof over our heads….And all i want to do is meet chris brown in person…….i love his so much but i never got to see him in person because my mom dont have the mony for me to see him so all im asking u is can i meet him please….And i want to take danceing lesson but i can so can u please help me……love ya


  4. Buddhists talk about several types of leadership. The most desired kind of leadership is “king-like” leadership, in which the leader issues guidance from a position of experience and authority.

    But the Buddhists recognize that we can’t all (or always) lead from such a position of accomplishment. Sometimes we have to be “boatman-like leaders,” riding along with one another, controlling the direction of the vessel as best we can, with as much wisdom as we can, even though we’re not really any further along than the people we help.

    I appreciate all of your leadership, Erik, whatever kind it is. I’d rather have a compassionate boatman than a condescending king, anyway. 🙂


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