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…

So what have you made of the response of government leaders? [Reading from President Hu of China:] They have made a pledge to “reduce [carbon emissions] by a notable margin”—what is that?

I think that was very encouraging, because we have been seeing that even governments like China —emerging markets which can claim that they should be given the right to develop like other industrialized countries, using fossil fuels—l am very happy to see them committing [to reduce] because we just can’t do business as usual anymore.

But committing to what?

[Laughing] I am quite sure this is politics. They probably don’t want to put any figures on table just yet. But I’m really hoping that when they get to Copenhagen they have to put those commitments to real numbers.

Here’s President Obama speaking September 22 at the UN: “The security and stability of each nation and all peoples; our prosperity, our health and our safety are in jeopardy and the time we have to reverse this tide is running out. And yet we can reverse it. JFK once observed that our problems are man made therefore they may be solved by man…” That link he makes, between climate, prosperity, health and security—that’s thanks to you.

As you know, one of the reasons we got the Nobel Peace Prize was that we were able to bring in the matter of resources and competition over those resources. We said we live on a planet that is seeing diminishing resources.… The population is rising and the water does not increase, the land does not increase. And we said as these resources diminish, and as we compete over these resources, we will fight over them. And so to pre-empt a lot of conflict in the future (including for resources that are extremely essential for life like water), we need to develop new global mechanisms that will help us to live in peace with each other despite the fact that we can only use the resources we have. We are not going to expand the water or the land.

I think one of the most important things that President Obama brought to the table is the commitment of the USA. As you know, for almost ten years we have been mourning the fact that USA did not sign Kyoto Protocol. The fact that they are on board, they are engaged, and they will be there with a positive attitude that something has to be done [that’s important]. Even at the meeting, there are skeptics—[who don’t believe] that we are dealing with human-induced greenhouse gases. And I have to say, if 4,000 scientists around the world on this are wrong, I’ll be with them…

What is wrong with making our societies more sustainable, regardless? Talk about how this is playing out in the Democratic Republic of Congo: the relationship between trees and war.

As you know, I am the good will ambassador of the Congo forest.… I’ve been trying to raise awareness among deforesting partners…. Now it has been established by the scientists that 20 percent of greenhouse gases (especially carbon) is coming from deforestation and forest degradation. We can’t afford to ignore the forest. In Africa, the Congo is the second-largest forest in world. The largest is in the Amazon. The third, in Southeast Asia. These three are often referred to as “the lungs of the planet.” Which is why we want forests integrated into whatever mechanism comes out of Copenhagen.

In Congo biggest threat is lack of peace. The wars—are largely over resources, worked out in terms of political competition.… Unfortunately, as you saw when Secretary of State Clinton was recently in the eastern part of Congo, she was horrified, especially by issues that are affecting women. Although we are trying to save the forest, we know that without peace it will be very difficult.  

In this country, when it comes to Africa, we often hear tribal language used. The problem is warring people, we’re told, competing over resources. When you look at the threats to the forest—I’m thinking especially of Brazil—it seems that corporate competition for resources is what’s responsible for overwhelming majority of deforestation.

Talk about the role of companies, like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, who are expanding their investments in biofuel and ethanol, and carving up territory in Brazil. They are also the people who sponsor our news, even our public TV.

They are so important. They also sponsor politics! The sad thing is, usually when we talk about the destruction of forest, we talk about local people, but I can tell you, I’ve been to the Congo forest. It’s not the pygmies who are destroying those forests; it’s those companies.

I visited one of those companies—a supposedly conscious one—and I witnessed how they are selectively harvesting those trees. One of the most devastating experiences I had was when they pulled down a tree that is 200 years old. In about ten minutes it was down. It came down with so much force it seemed to me as if the entire content of Africa was coming down. When I shed tears for that tree (because I really couldn’t take it), the man there told me “Don’t worry—there are millions of them out there.”

And that’s the attitude. But there are not really millions of trees we can dispense of. Then I asked him how much will you use? He told me 35 percent. Thirty-five percent because they do not want to seek the technology that is available to use more of that wood. Many companies want to do what they can do without being beaten by the competition. So for governments, I’m sure it is very difficult to make these companies uphold a code of conduct so that they use that wood sustainably and most efficiently.

Rain Forest Action says we are losing 1.5 acres of forest every second of every day.

Can you imagine?

The Kenyan economy has transformed in your lifetime. I’d love you to talk about that. You were the first woman in your country to receive a doctorate.… Now you’re a world leader in a country that is relatively developed. Yet you are asking your people to think again about the track that they’re on. As we have to do that here in the US too, I’d like to learn from you. Your people are excited about the new opportunities they have and the new products they have access to, and that are being advertised. What have you found works as you talk to them about choices?

Well, it is not easy because we get used to a comfortable life and as we saw here in America, we can even get to the point where we spend what we don’t have and somebody says give it back and we don’t have it. So first and foremost we need to learn how to live within our means, and not only in America, which is very rich country and most of us are trying to live the American dream, but from this country’s crisis, we learned that we have to learn to live within our means and that the resources out there are limited.

In our part of the world, the message is usually that you have to learn to live within your means so that you do not destroy the environment; so that you do not, for example privatize what is public, [namely] the forest, public areas, or break the bank or the treasury in order to live a lifestyle that you cannot afford.

It’s also important for citizens to hold leaders accountable, to participate in elections. People say I don’t want to get involved in politics because I’m not a politician. I say politicians are making decisions about your life. If you’re not “a politician,” there’s something wrong with you…

Here in the US we had people who spent outside their means because their means could not sustain their lives. At the same time we have a national economy where the means of a very small group are equal to all the means of everybody else. Do you think we will we see wars over resources in this country?

Equity is extremely important. I know people don’t like to hear the word equity (there is a big difference between equality and equity…). It is very important, like in a forest, that everybody get some light to thrive and grow. So even the mushrooms at the very bottom [of the forest] get their part as well as the tree whose canopy is covering the forest. [Likewise] the rich and the powerful have to realize that they cannot have it all.

We’re not talking about socialism. We’re talking about justice. We’re talking about equitable distribution of resources. Even as we go to Copenhagen we are saying there must be some responsibility on those who have caused the problem and [who have] become extremely wealthy using a system that has destroyed the planet.  They must be willing so spend some of their resources to heal the planet. Equitable distribution is extremely important to all of us. Because if we don’t, those we marginalize, those we set aside, eventually become a burden.… Sometimes they become violent, or [otherwise] make it very difficult for the rest to enjoy our wealth. That’s why it is in all our interest to promote justice equity and to promote respect for human rights.

You often use the word “Mottainai” What is it?

Mottainai is a concept I learned in Japan.… I was trying to talk to them about recycling, reducing, reusing. But there, in the second-most-powerful economy in the world, people are used to spending. They told me they are embarrassed to reuse, because they have so much. But some of the resources they are using because they can, come from resources they should be concerned about. For example, throw-away chopsticks. Are they coming from Japanese forest? No. Probably from Congo, Brazil—or SE Asia—and [I said] you need those forests for your own survival…. So can you learn to reuse reduce, recycle as you used to before you became so rich?  And they said traditionally we had this concept “mottainai.” It embraces the concepts of respect (which we don’t have too much of), gratitude (which we don’t have too much of), and an effort not to waste (and in many countries, wastage is the number one thing to be avoided).

I hear from you not only about an eco-system in balance, but also an economy in balance. Can we have a healthy planet without changing our financial and economic eco-system?

I don’t think so. I really don’t think so. They have to go side by side because our economy is based on our environment. Unless we have a healthy environment we cannot have a health economy. What we need to understand is that we may sit here in middle of New York or London and think everything is perfect. But guess what? If everything is perfect where you are because you are damaging the environment in other parts of the world, sooner or later, that damage—down there, or east or west—that damage is going to come knocking on your door—sooner or later.