Wangari Maathai died September 25 of cancer, age 71. She was the first female African Nobel Peace Prize winner and the first woman to receive a doctorate in Central or Eastern Africa. The organization she founded, the Green Belt Movement, is responsible for the planting of millions of trees. But Maathai planted more than trees. She planted ideas, specifically the idea that conflict and climate change are linked, that climate action will come from the bottom, and the notion that women must be in leadership of the necessary next transformation.
In this interview, conducted in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit on climate in 2009, I asked Maathai for her “advice for the West.” Resource wars loom here, too. In fact, they’re already breaking out. Equity matters. That’s just part of her empassioned response.
In the two years since we spoke, Maathai battled cancer. Her country and its neighbors were ravaged by severe drought, crop failure, armed conflict and desperate famine, and the United States, just one among industrialized nations, slowed, rather than sped, its progress towards a sustainable economy.
Maathai died as the US government deadlocked over threatened cuts to spending on “green” energy programs, but as activists around the world marked “Moving Planet” (a global day of mobilization spearheaded by Bill McKibben’s 350.Org). The next chance I get, I am going to plant a tree for Maathai. How about you? I’ll post a picture of mine on the GRITtv Facebook page. You are welcome to do likewise.
What follows is a partial transcript of our conversation, which took place September 23, 2009, in New York on GRITtv. Maathai was in town for the UN General Assembly, looking ahead to Copenhagen:
Laura Flanders: You made a very strong pitch to the world leaders gathered at UN this week. What did you call for?
Wangari Maathai: We wanted first and foremost to let them know that it is a matter of life and death, and it is happening as we speak and that it is they, as leaders and heads of state, who can make a difference.… On behalf of civil society of the world…we wanted the leaders to know that they should go personally to Copenhagen, and be willing to commit to a very serious, a very ambitious affair and make an abiding commitment.
You talk, in your country, about 10 million lives at stake. Tell us about those lives.
These are ordinary people, farmers, pastoral communities. Those who know Africa know a large number of our populations are pastoral. They depend on rainfall and grasses, they move about with their animals. Today, on the landscape you can literally see carcasses of animals both domestic and wild, dying of thirst of hunger, and people migrating to where they think they might be able to find food and water.
The government has announced that we have an emergency in the country. It’s not as if climate change has come today and caused all this. This is partly because for years—for decades—we have been calling governments to prioritize the environment…