Wangari Maathai
tells Geoffrey Lean how trees make peace and how deforestation and degradation of the land lead to conflict.

Peace and trees were synonymous in traditional African societies. Conflicts were resolved under their boughs, elders carried sticks from them to effect reconciliation, and people even used their names in greeting. ‘The African culture was, indeed, a culture of peace built around trees,’ says Professor Wangari Maathai, who has caused some 30 million saplings to be planted on the continent.

Now the Norwegian Nobel Committee has updated the connection by awarding the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize to Professor Maathai, the founder of the Green Belt Movement. She is the first environmental activist to win the award, and the first African woman to receive any Nobel prize.

Controversial decision
It was a controversial decision – and it came under attack from some politicians who said that ‘a peace prize should honour peace, not the environment’. But Professor Ole Danbolt Mjøs, the Chair of the Committee, retorted in his address at the award ceremony in Oslo: ‘Environmental protection has become yet another path to peace.’

The Committee itself was even more explicit. ‘Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment,’ it said. ‘Maathai stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa.’

Professor Maathai – who now serves as Kenya’s Assistant Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources – talked to Our Planet just three days after the ceremony. And she emphasized how the unequal and unsustainable use of the world’s natural resources is leading to conflict locally, nationally and globally.

She started with the African trees. ‘Many communities in Kenya, and I am sure throughout Africa, had the concept of peace trees,’ she said. ‘When elders were seeking reconciliation among communities and individuals they would sit around specific trees. Indeed the Luhya people of western Kenya would even greet each other, when they met, with the name of the species they used as a peace tree, murembe.

Peace tree
‘Among the Kikuyu,’ she added, ‘the peace tree was a species called thigi. It is more of a shrub than a tree, with many shoots. Sticks were cut from the shoots and given to elders as a symbol of authority. The elders carried the staffs everywhere they went. If they found people quarrelling, they would first try to dialogue with them, and – if they then made a judgement that there was no reason why they should be at odds – they would put the stick between them. Once an elder had done that the protagonists were supposed to separate and go and reconcile.’

The thigi trees were once common and were protected. They could not be cut for anything else, or used for building or firewood. But now they have vanished so completely that Professor Maathai herself has never seen one.

‘They disappeared because they were no longer valued and their importance was no longer an issue. People were no longer being made to reconcile by elders in the community. With colonialism that whole structure was destroyed. Now when people collide they are arrested and put in jail. There are no more thigi trees and there’s a lot more conflict.’

The story could be a parable for environmental security in Kenya, Africa and the world. For as Professor Maathai says: ‘When resources are degraded or overexploited, people fight over them.’ She has seen it happen in her own country – and it has provided one of her strongest motivations. She remembers, as a child, growing up ‘just seeing vegetation all around me: the land was always covered with forests and trees. We did not have a word for desert, because we never saw it.’

She recalls drawing water from a spring ‘fascinated by the way the clean cool water pushed its way through the soft red clay so gently that even the individual grains of the soil were left undisturbed’ and the ‘streams, beautiful streams’.

Today the trees have been cut down for tea plantations and the streams and springs have dried out. ‘I feel the tragedy under my feet,’ she has said. ‘Gullies stare at me, telling the story of soil erosion, unknown before. Hunger is on the faces of the people.’

Now little of Kenya’s original tree cover remains, and the overexploitation of the land has already led to conflict. Pastoralists and settled farmers have clashed over use of the remaining healthy areas.

The same process is behind the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, she continues. ‘To a certain extent it is a conflict between pastoralists and farmers because the land has been degraded.’

Exacerbating conflicts
Politics can make the conflicts worse. ‘The tension can come from overexploitation of natural resources and then be manipulated by politicians, or politicians can instigate disaffection or dissatisfaction that is easily picked up by the people because of the pressure on resources.

‘It’s a very common thing, but we usually don’t think of the environment or the poor management of natural resources, which often happens because of poor governance. If you do not have democracy, or proper distribution and responsible management of resources, you have conflict, and it is so easy to manipulate it. Then people do not say, “Our environment is degraded: what can we do to rehabilitate it?” Instead they will usually go and fight over whatever is left.’
Trees look great on the land and give people hope
Professor Mjøs underlined the point in his speech at the award ceremony. ‘Present-day wars and conflict take place not so much between, as within, states,’ he said. ‘When we analyse local conflicts we tend to focus on their ethnic and religious aspects. But it is often the underlying ecological circumstances that bring the more readily visible aspects to the flashpoint.’ He cited the desertification in Darfur, conflict following deforestation in the Philippines, and the role of soil erosion and deforestation in revolt in Mexico, and added: ‘Competition for minerals has been an important element of several conflicts in Africa in recent years. Competition for timber has figured prominently in Liberia, in Indonesia and in Brazil.’

Professor Maathai started the Green Belt Movement in 1977. Local people were at first sceptical, but ‘when the trees were planted and started growing they became the best ambassadors for themselves.

‘They have this wonderful way of communicating with the communities. Trees look great on the land and give people hope. The people know that within no time they will have firewood and timber. There is shade. There is no dust. They can see it’s a good investment.’

As the movement spread Professor Maathai ran into increasing opposition from the government of the time, and herself became a leading opposition activist and was beaten up and imprisoned. She returned to the old traditions, planting ‘peace trees’ to demand the release of prisoners of conscience, and to reconcile ethnic conflicts in Kenya – and says they have also been planted ‘to promote a culture of peace’ during the rewriting of the country’s constitution.

She concludes that environmental degradation in Africa and elsewhere is beginning to lead to international tensions. ‘The migration from South to North is partly because the migrants are leaving behind a very degraded environment because they have had very poor governance and a very poor distribution of resources. There can be no peace without equitable development, and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space. I hope that this prize will help many people see the link between these three things’


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Waking up | Planting security | Natural peace | People | No procrastinating on climate | Attracting private investment | Reshaping the energy and security debate | At a glance: Environmental security | Star profile: Salman Ahmad | How many Earths? | Green helmets | Books and products | Initiative for change | Security in turbulence | Water and war | Beating the ‘resource curse’ | Green peace | It’s poverty, stupid

Complementary issues:
People (Freshwater) 2003
People (Seas, Oceans and Small Islands) 2004
People (The rule of law and the Millennium Development Goals) 2004