Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Wonderful People Doing Fabulous Things - Wangari Maathai

“…when you talk about the problems, you tend to disempower people. You tend to make people feel that there is nothing they can do, that they are doomed, that there is no hope. I realized that to break the cycle, one has to start with a positive step, and I thought that planting a tree is very simple, very easy – something positive that anybody can do.” – Wangari Maathai

Like most of you, I became aware of environmental concerns 20 years ago when holes in the ozone layer were becoming as alarming as the threat of nuclear war. At that time, I learned that people were burning the Amazon rainforest, our planet’s vital lung. While I read accounts, saw the pictures, and learned the danger to our planet, it all seemed strangely unreal, a little like fiction - confined to the page and my imagination.

Five years ago, Jane and I vacationed in Panama. We spent an exhilarating day in the lush mouth of an extinct volcano, home to a village named El Valle. We rappelled down a waterfall and hiked up to and along the rim of the ancient cone. When evening came, the shuttle bus took us back to our resort. As we wound down the mountain we could see in the distance a thin line of fire that extended for miles.

I was speechless. And overwhelmed. It’s one thing to read about this sort of thing. It’s quite another to see it before your eyes. What could I do?

Deforestation has huge ramifications for the health of our planet – and the health of communities. No one knows this better than Wangari Maathai, and no one knows better than her the huge ramification of a simple positive step.

Her country, Kenya has been heavily deforested for firewood and to make room for plantations. In fact, Maathai estimates that Kenya’s forest is 2.9% of what it once was. Kenya has no indigenous source for fuel, except for trees. With a scarcity of firewood, cooking was compromised. With the scarcity of trees, the soil baked under the harsh sun and washed away. As the environment deteriorated, so did biodiversity and human health.

Maathai made this connection and in 1977 planted seven trees in her back yard to mark World Environment Day. She then encouraged Kenyan farmers (70% women) to plant trees around their land to serve as a protective belt. She toured schools to encourage kids to encourage their parents to plant trees. This action took off and became the Greenbelt Movement.

Today the Greenbelt Movement empowers people by educating them on proper nutrition, family planning and taking action. In addition, the movement has created over fifteen hundred tree nurseries that have provided Kenyans with over 15 million free trees.

Maatai’s work recognizes the intricate connection between a stable ecology and empowerment to the disenfranchised, sound economic development, and cultural advancement. She has stood up against oppression and continues to stand her ground.

The United Nations has recognized this movement as a model for grassroots conservation. The movement is now in over thirty countries in Africa and has a branch in the US. This movement has been so effective that Maatai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. She was one of the eight women who carried in the Olympic Flag during the opening ceremonies last Friday.

Amazing what a simple act will lead to. It may not lead to a movement, but it’s important none the less.

Imagine if no one did anything.

Imagine if everyone did some small positive thing. Our small acts are important. Everyone’s counting on them.

1 comment:

Janer said...

Its SO important to hear the stories of people who act on their passions! Thanks Cheryl.