Tree Woman

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

This is one woman who will endure physical and verbal beating for what she believes. She has gone from living in a dirt floor hut to being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. (Well, okay, sure, it's lost its lustre since you can now be awarded one for simply not being someone else, but hey, Wangari Maathai has sure earned hers).

It never ceases to amaze me how much one person, or a small group can accomplish - way more than the sum of their parts. Wangari is one amazing woman, and she has had one amazing life.

When the Kenyan dictator of her country, Daniel Arap Moi, decided to build over Uhuru Park, the only parkland in Nairobi, she stood up to him. She incurred his wrath and denigration (ye olde standby - when people start speaking up, demonise them. If they are an oppressed part of your culture (ie women), call them mad, denigrate their worth, call them onto the cultural carpet, tell them they're not behaving how women should behave, respecting their men).

Proving that not much has changed since Nebuchadnezar, Moi was wanting to replace Uhuru Park with "a giant skyscraper, some luxury apartments, and a huge golden statue of himself." Maathai's protests earned her a spot in jail, charged with treason. It took her three years of fighting and death threats and violence before Moi backed down on his venture after international protests began snowballing.

Maathai's Green Belt Movement began in 1977 in an effort to tackle deforestation, soil erosion and lack of water. What began at the grassroots, a bunch of women planting trees, now has seen 40 million trees planted throughout Africa. Inspiring stuff. Grounding women back into the earth that supports them.

Maathai now speaks internationally about deforestation and global warming. I encourage you to check out the Green Belt Movement site and the article in The Independent which first switched me onto this wonderful woman.

As a scientist, Maathai is warning now that man-made global warming threatens to make the rainforests dry up and die, whatever she does in Kenya. She could save them from Moi – but can she save them from us?
"People don't realise how much they depend for their own survival on this ecosystem and how fragile it is," she says, almost pleading. "The world's forests are its lungs. Thick, healthy strands of indigenous trees absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide and keep them out of the atmosphere. If the Congolese rainforests were entirely destroyed, for example, 135 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide would be released – equivalent to more than a decade of man-made emissions. So if we lose these forests, we lose the fight against climate change."
The rainforests can be killed from two directions – by the saws of men like Moi, or the warming gases of people like us. That is why she has left the land she loves, armed with the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 2004, and travelled so far: to try to persuade us to let the forests live. "There are moments in history when humans have to raise their consciousness and see the world anew. This is one of those moments. We are being called to assist the earth in healing her wounds, and in the process we can heal our own. We can revive our sense of belonging to a larger community of life. We can see who we really are."
This inspires me even while I feel the futility in a way. (And going deeper, while in spiritual terms I still hold to a tiny naiive childish flicker that the world will be made anew some day, maybe that belief is why we are so languid, who believe such a thing. Why care for the earth when it is going to be made new? Only a people living in our times, as cast adrift as we are from mother earth, would ever be so deluded as to think such things. We are most certainly city kids).

How can things change when it comes down to people who are encouraged within the very fabric of their society, to consume more and more? What happens when climactically the most powerful in the world are ... us?

So often I am overwhelmed by the way everything is set up. Our very cultural fabric, and our riches, our torpor, impede us from getting involved. And so to see people who have broken through that ennui and are willing to stand up is inspiring to me. I was enamoured to see my favourite gardener, Peter Cundall, arrested protesting against Gunn's pulp mill in Tasmania the other day.

It all feels so helpless and pointless because the power is with the governments, and the governments are composed of people who wish to stay in power, who have all sorts of pressures from all sorts of different venues, and who are rich and corrupt despite what they think about themselves, and so what we have is a proposed emissions trading scheme which will see and so what you get when you are hashing out a proposed emissions trading bill is one, the Greens tell us, which will actually will see greater investment in coal in the future. WTF?

But then that's always the way it's been, isn't it. The big people at the top are smothered by their own power, their own position, their own red tape. Even when what's debated is the planet we live on, the air that we breathe, the trees that breathe for us. It is up to people at the bottom to make the real difference. It's always been the way. Power to the people :)

HT to Mike


  1. Thanks for sharing Wangari Maathai with us. It does boggle the mind to see what one person can do. It always starts with one (or a few).

    Its kind of sick about how much we all consume and I don't know what it will take for that to change.

    (Oh - about that ripe mango we were talking about, he's very sweet)

  2. It's amazing, isn't it Barbara, and inspiring. I love hearing stories of people like her.

    Mmm, juicy juicy mangoes.

  3. Just seen this, linked from FB - thanks most belatedly for the HT - sad news of this dear woman's death. 71 - seems oddly young these days, doesn't it?


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