Maathai speaks on African environment

by Laurel Smith | 5/5/93 10:00pm

Montgomery Fellow Dr. Wangari Maathai last night told an audience in 105 Dartmouth Hall, "My government does not seem to like what I do ... there were fears that I would not arrive at this beautiful campus."

Maathai, considered the leading environmentalist in Africa and the Third World and a controversial political figure in her native Kenya, was recently in hiding there following a government attempt to arrest her.

Her visit to the College as a Montgomery Fellow was uncertain only weeks ago, but she spoke last night on "Women's Role in the Environment and Politics in Kenya."

Maathai is director of the Green Belt Movement, an environmental organization founded 16 years ago to promote reforestation and expansion of natural fuel resources, and provide income and empowerment for rural workers, who are mostly women.

The movement encourages tree-planting to combat malnutrition and the effects of environmental exploitation in rural communities. Though most of the program focused on women, the movement has been extended to aid men and children.

Maathai spoke about the difficulties in labeling the Green Belt Movement as a specifically political, environmental or developmental one. In Kenya, according to Maathai, politics is viewed as a man's occupation.

"There is pressure for women to stay away from politics and the power and prestige that go with it," Maathai said. "There's nothing political about digging a hole and planting a tree ... it's ok for women to do that."

Maathai said it is important for women to understand that "they don't have to wait for politicians and developers to do what they want with their lives and resources."

The sapling trees planted by the women provide fruit for nutrition and wood for fuel. As compared to the vegetation of New England, "in the tropics, trees grow day and night," Maathai said.

"Within five years, a community can completely change. That's why the movement has such an impact," she said.

As the movement spread and became more powerful, politicians began to feel threatened, and began labeling it "anti-government," Maathai said. "If a movement becomes popular, does that make it political?"

Maathai said it is safer for the movement to stay a visibly environmental and developmental one, instead of being dragged into the political world.

"It's safer for [the tree planters] to say that they are just protecting the environment. Then they can confront the politicians on environmental grounds, and they can control that," she said.

The movement is not always safe for Maathai, however. "Amnesty International has encouraged people to appeal to my country for my safety," she said.

"I'm a target because I'm the only one [the government] sees making noise," Maathai said. "I would probably be crushed immediately if [the movement] was to turn into a political forum, because [the government] knows how extensive it is."

Despite the danger, Maathai will return to her country to carry on the movement's work. "I will go back to Kenya and do what my spirit is telling me to do: to care," she said.

For her efforts in the movement and her vocal political and environmental views, Maathai received a United Nations Environmental Program Global 500 Award. She was also awarded a Woman of the World Award from the Princess of Wales in 1989.