The first thing Wangari Maathai did after being notified that she had won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize was to plant a tree in her backyard. She said she did this whenever she celebrated something.
Maathai died of ovarian cancer this past Sunday in Nairobi. This is a moment for mourning but also for celebration of a life lived full on: challenging poverty, empowering women, resisting exploitation, cultivating democracy, and advocating for the integrity and sustainability of the planet.
She tied all these dimensions of her life together through both the simplicity and complexity of planting trees. Since 1977 her Green Belt Movement planted 40 million of them throughout Africa.
Tree planting was simple because it was designed to be something women could do with their two hands close to home, including harvesting native seeds in their area.
At the same time tree planting was complex because it became a way of linking human rights, poverty, environmental protection, justice and peace.
When Gandhi sought a symbolic but also dramatically hands-on practice to signify and center the Indian independence movement, he reached for the spinning wheel. This everyday implement was charged by Gandhi with the power of resisting imperialist oppression (spinning one’s own cloth in defiance of a colonial system by which Indian raw materials were transported to English factories and then sold back at markup to the Indian market) and portending a new political and economic future.
Planting trees was Maathai’s spinning wheel. It directly challenged a system of desertification in Kenya and throughout the continent that had left millions of ordinary people destitute and without resources. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech she shared how her own activism was rooted in childhood memories of rural Kenya, where she had experienced forests being cleared for commercial agriculture, destroying biodiversity and the capacity of forests to conserve water.
“There is no word in our language for ‘desert,’” Maathai once said. The desertification of her country was a relatively recent consequence of modernity and globalization, and she was inspired to change this.
At the same time, as the tangled threads of land use, markets, and dictatorial policies became clear, she was also committed to undoing another desert: the lack of a thriving and democratic civil society. “The tree,” Maathai said, “became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya. Citizens were mobilized to challenge widespread abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement.”
Organizing widespread tree planting defied the vested interests profiting from vast resource exploitation and the national government that supported them, including the 24-year dictatorship of President Daniel arap Moi.
Maathai’s basic practice of environmental conservation and local sustainability—tree planting throughout the country—became a potent ritual that challenged the political and economic structures of power.
Just how potent this movement was can be measured by the fierce attacks Maathai faced over and over again.
Maathai was vilified, beaten and arrested many times as she and her colleagues organized numerous campaigns to stop the privatization of large sections of the Karuna Forest outside Nairobi (in which Maathai and her cohorts were physically attacked by 200 hired thugs as she planted trees) and the destruction of a large park in Nairobi slated for a huge office complex. In both cases, the campaigns were successful.
In 1992 Maathai discovered that her name was on a government assassination list; she barricaded herself in her home for three days before government soldiers broke in and arrested her. Following an international outcry she was released. Later that year she and others engaged in a hunger strike in a city park to pressure the government to release a group of political prisoners. The police forcibly removed the fasters, during which Maathai was clubbed and hospitalized. Again, international supporters rallied on her behalf. Eventually the political prisoners were released.
Wangari Maathai was an epochal figure who, in her vision, strategic organizing, and the willingness inexorably to deliver her message in person and to face the risks of doing so, spelled out the possibility of responding to the unique challenges facing our planet and its inhabitants in our time. Just as Gandhi heralded the age of the decolonization, Maathai dramatically signaled the emergence of the age of global indigenous eco-justice.
There are other resonances with Gandhi. Maathai, like Gandhi, saw the particular problem in front of her as part of a system of injustice that demanded a holistic response. Maathai, like Gandhi, relentlessly gambled that nonviolent people power was capable of shaking and even dismantling structures of oppression. In so doing, Maathai challenged deeply entrenched interests, empowered women as agents of change, and inspired the global environmental movement. Like the forest itself, her work provided canopy for many species of transformative initiatives, including civic and environmental education, capacity building and income generation, and programs nurturing food security, human rights and self-determination.
Finally, like Gandhi, Maathai articulated the link between her work and a practical vision of peace:
It is evident that many wars are fought over resources which are now becoming increasingly scarce. If we conserved our resources better, fighting over them would not then occur. … So, protecting the global environment is directly related to securing peace. … Those of us who understand the complex concept of the environment have the burden to act. We must not tire, we must not give up, we must persist.
Wangari Maathai is our great teacher from whom we will continue to learn for a very long time. We celebrate her life, work, legacy, and power. And like her, we can do so by planting a tree—or by engaging in an appropriate equivalent, like taking part in the November 6 Tar Sands Action, which will seek to nonviolently encircle the White House to call on President Obama to scuttle the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
Whatever we do, let us, like Wangari Maathai, recognize the power we have to revive and replenish this fragile and resilient world.
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