She has planted a tree with Barack Obama—but that was just one of some 40 million seeds sown throughout Africa by the Kenya-based Green Belt Movement, founded by 69-year-old Wangari Maathai. The first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Maathai spoke with O just before the release of her new book, The Challenge for Africa.
O: With Africa facing so many problems, how did the environment become your cause?
Wangari Maathai: I started with women from the countryside, where deforestation and soil loss were harming them. In Kenya women are the first victims of environmental degradation, because they are the ones who walk for hours looking for water, who fetch firewood, who provide food for their families.
O: How did you make the jump between environmental issues and peace?
Wangari Maathai: When resources are degraded, we start competing for them, whether it is at the local level in Kenya, where we had tribal clashes over land and water, or at the global level, where we are fighting over water, oil, and minerals. So one way to promote peace is to promote sustainable management and equitable distribution of resources.
O: And the starting point is a tree.
Wangari Maathai: In the tropics, trees grow fast; in five to ten years, you can use them for fencing, building, and firewood. But planting a tree can also be an entry point for communities to understand how to restore their own resources. You can educate people on how to preempt their own conflict.
O: And you planted a tree with President Obama a few years back...
Wangari Maathai: When he won the presidency, we planted another tree to celebrate, not far from his—which is doing very well, by the way.