Interview with Wangari Muta Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in 2004

26 September 2011

Q: Why did you accept to come here to attend “Gateway to Africa”?

This was the first of a series of conferences on Africa. I was invited to this conference because of the work I do in Africa and particularly Kenya, but as you know I’m also the Goodwill Ambassador of the Congo Forest. I was very keen to come because I recognize that the environment is a very important part of development in Africa.

Q: You made a statement regarding developing aid. Do you feel that donors should give more to civil society instead of supporting governments in Africa?

No. The truth of the matter is that there are certain things that only the government can do. For example, in Kenya we are involved in the protection of the forests and the environment. When it comes to making roads that are sustainable, roads that do not hasten soil erosion and trying to protect the forests that are under a national mandate, you need governmental participation. Only the government can do the right thing, and only the government can facilitate such works because they are huge and need a lot of capital.

NGOs and civil societies may not be able to handle such projects. What is important is for the government to do the right thing with the money it obtains. The problem that we have had in the past is that there has been so much corruption that the huge resources given by the developed countries to improve the quality of people’s lives have not been used in the right way. That is why we make critical remarks and that is why we are constantly pushing the government to be accountable, to be transparent –– so that we can see what is happening.

It is also true that the government generates a lot of capital from the taxes of its citizens and companies. That money too must be used properly. If it had not been stolen by the political leaders it could have made a lot of difference. Together we could have seen the quality of life of ordinary citizens improve.

Civil society needs help in putting pressure on the government. Usually, the government resists civil societies because of the pressure they apply. The international community has done a very good job in supporting civil society. I will give you an example of our own work –– the Green Belt Movement. We have been working for more than three decades now and we have never received a penny from the Kenyan government. All our resources have come from outsiders: the Norwegian government through Norad; the Danish government through Danida; the US government through USAID; and many NGOs that support the developing world.

We have raised awareness about the need to protect the environment from the government, to protect public spaces from the government, to protect the forests from the government. We would never have been able to do this if we did not have the support of donors. Therefore, my statement was not only to say that civil society should be supported, but to say that both civil society and the government should be supported. Nevertheless, it is extremely important for us to get civil society and donors to continue pushing for better governance. As you have seen at this conference, almost everybody that spoke has emphasized good governance.

Q: How did you get the idea of the Green Belt Movement?

When I first started, I was responding to the needs of women, particularly preparations for the Women’s Conference in Mexico in 1975. It was not going to be a long-term project. But I had opened Pandora’s Box! It never stopped. One problem led to another. A network was created and it made me understand that many of the problems in the country, in the region and in the world are connected with environmental degradation. Taking care of the environment became a full-time job –– and it has never ended!

Q: How do you manage to keep up your positive attitude? I presume it has not always been easy.

Well, it does not help to cry or to complain. I think it is much better to be involved in action. I think one of the advantages of the Green Belt Movement is that it is not only a programme that allows you to comment and offer advice on what is happening, but you are also involved in action. One of the slogans of this conference was “commit to action” and we are action-oriented. We talk and we educate each other. We criticize, but we also actually become physically involved in positive action like planting trees, harvesting rainwater, improving the livelihood of communities. Thus, when we speak about the issues we are talking from experience. This has an impact because we know that we are right! We have seen it; we have felt it; we have lived it.

Q: Going back to your Nobel Peace Prize and international recognition, how did it feel?

The amazing thing about the Nobel Prize is that suddenly the whole world is looking to you. They are saying: “What did you do to get the Nobel Peace Prize Committee to recognize you.” It is a wonderful gift because it gives you an opportunity to explain what you are doing and how the work you are doing is linked to peace. To explain why you did it; where you started, etc. The question you just asked me I have answered a million times already.

Q: What do you want to achieve next?

One of the things that is on the table and which is very exciting is the fact that we have, in fact, been doing this work for more than thirty years. We have come to the conclusion that it is an experience that can be shared, even at the university level. It is not only the grassroots people who need to understand the environment, but also university graduates who so often become the country’s decision-makers in the future. Whether they become doctors, lawyers or civil servants, they will make decisions that will have an impact on the environment. We want them to come out of the university with an understanding that the environment is very central in whatever we do. Together with the University of Nairobi, we are starting an institute which the University has named after me: the Wangari Muta Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies. It is going to be a very different kind of institute. Students will come here to learn by doing –– it’s experiential learning. We are going to start first with the students who are already in environmental studies or conservation so that they understand the issues. Then they are involved in physical work in the community, they understand what they are discussing in the classroom.

It is already in the making. The university has already given me fifty acres of land very close to Nairobi. It is a wonderful thing. A South African company won the design competition. We are now waiting for that company to finalize its design and give an approximate cost. At that point I will be very happy to approach donors and people who may be very interested in this kind of institute.

Geneva April 2011