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Heed Wangari Maathai's Wisdom

Black and white image of Wangari Maathai, earth warrior and writer, smiling at the camera, her arms wrapped around a tree.

The annual United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference, 'COP25' is underway (2-13 December 2019). The science is clear - we have run out of time. The fossil fuel and related corporations pollute the world and have caused the climate crisis. Will COP hold them to account or will COP allow them to manipulate this dangerous moment for even more profit?

In 2018, 13-year-old Autumn Peltier, a member of the Wikwemikong First Nation, presented a speech to the UN and shared ancient wisdom from the first people of the world, about water, the earth and humanity. She calls us to "Warrior up..." knowing that "One day I will be an ancestor, and I want my great-grand-children to know I tried hard to fight so they can have clean drinking water". The global climate strikes inspired by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg reconnect to the wisdom of indigenous people who cared for the earth before being decimated by colonial genocides. Visiting the water protectors of Standing Rock, Greta recognised that "Indigenous peoples are at the frontline, they are often the ones who are affected the most by the climate and ecological crisis, yet they are not the ones responsible for it. They are also the ones who are leading the fight against it. We are now so desperate for their voices and knowledge how to live in balance with nature." If those who continue to hold the world to ransom, had heeded Wangari Maathai, the first ancestor profiled on this site, the earth's children could play happily - their present and future secure.

"Plant a tree - preserve our planet": a simple, profound idea. In 1977, Africa’s first Woman Nobel Peace Prize-winner formed the Green Belt Movement. Built on the recognition and value of rural women’s contribution, it became a catalyst for global change. Wangari Muta Maathai understood humanity’s integral connection to the earth "I am part and parcel of the earth...whether you are alive or dead, you are still part of it.” This tribute honours her words of clarity and wisdom.

Wangari's Nobel lecture alerted us to: “a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own – indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder... industry and global institutions must appreciate that ensuring economic justice, equity and ecological integrity are of greater value than profits at any cost. The extreme global inequities and prevailing consumption patterns continue at the expense of the environment and peaceful co-existence.

She honoured women’s role in mediating the impact of environmental devastation, especially on children: “In 1977, when we started the Green Belt Movement, I was partly responding to needs identified by rural women, namely lack of firewood, clean drinking water, balanced diets, shelter and income. Throughout Africa, women are the primary caretakers, holding significant responsibility for tilling the land and feeding their families. As a result, they are often the first to become aware of environmental damage as resources become scarce and incapable of sustaining their families. The women we worked with recounted that unlike in the past they were unable to meet their basic needs. This was due to the degradation of their immediate environment as well as the introduction of commercial farming, which replaced the growing of household food crops. But international trade controlled the price of the exports from these small-scale farmers and a reasonable and just income could not be guaranteed...when the environment is destroyed, plundered or mismanaged, we undermine our quality of life and that of future generations.”

In 2007 Wangari Maathai argued that the “concept of accumulation and privatization is responsible for our failure to recognize that we are required to take what we need from the environment and leave the rest for future generations”. If we listened we would hear the trees share the truth she heard: “Let me live, because when I live, you live.” Those in positions of power need to heed her wisdom.

In 2011, South Africa hosted the United Nations annual Conference of the Parties (COP17) to assess progress in dealing with climate change. Wangari Maathai’s movement committed to “stepping up our calls for a global deal which safeguards the future of our planet and helps Africa adapt to the impacts of climate change. Climate change is caused by the emission of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) released (mainly) from burning fossil fuels and from land use change, particularly the removal of forests which accounts for almost 20% of global emissions...The countries that developed first, for example the UK, US...have emitted vastly more GHGs than the countries currently called ‘developing’, such as Kenya...Ironically, scientists say that it is the developing countries that will be hardest hit; African countries in particular. A just response to climate change must therefore include a comprehensive compensation package from the developed countries that have polluted the most to the developing countries whose total historical emissions are very low and are the most


Her movement addressed the urgency of climate justice. “People around the world are suffering the effects of climate change now, and for these people climate change is an issue of justice. Women are living on the frontlines of climate change...From food shortages to forest degradation and new and more complex health risks, as well as an increased likelihood of conflict over resources, the impacts of climate change threaten to further jeopardise the lives of women and girls. But just as many women are bearing the greatest burden of climate change because of their role as providers for their families; it is women who are developing the solutions that will save our world from the impacts of global warming.”

Wangari Maathai challenged the Community of Nations to take practical steps to enable women's vital role “In March this year, when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced a climate finance panel expected to mobilise $100 billion a year to help those most affected by climate change, the 19-person panel did not include a single woman. Not only should women be represented on a climate change finance panel...Women and girls also need the land and resource rights to implement progressive forestry or agricultural practices...”

She asserted that rhetoric must be backed by resources: “In Copenhagen, developed countries agreed to provide 'new and additional' financial resources to support mitigation and adaptation measures in the developing world — both immediately and over the long term...Rich countries have committed to reducing their emissions and phasing out “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies. They must now prove they are serious, by coming to the table with plans and timelines to reach these goals. And it is possible. As the response to the global economic meltdown has shown...I ask that they react with the same urgency to climate change...Climate finance is not an act of charity. It is an investment in a shared future.”

Wangari Maathai had warned leaders of the G8 and G20: “...In the Niger delta, the relentless pursuit of oil and gas to feed a world addicted to oil is behind much of the chronic violence and instability. Too often such conflicts are labelled as inter-ethnic or religious, ignoring the fact that climate change, environmental degradation and the pursuit of fossil fuels is the root cause of so much conflict in the world today...While leaders of the world’s richest countries bear the greatest responsibility for rising global temperatures, it is those already living on the edge of poverty who will feel the impacts most acutely...the daily reality of climate change. They include the citizens of small island states who will lose their homes as the seas consume the coastline and the women farmers of Africa, whose crops will dry up and whose children will suffer extensive malnutrition. For them, as well as millions of others, global warming is a matter of life and death.”

Wangari Maathai often shared the story of a little hummingbird which decided to use its limited power to fight a raging fire that threatened to annihilate the forest. Powerful animals, such as the elephants, rendered helpless by the enormity of the task, ridiculed her instead of helping. However, their ridicule did not stop the hummingbird, who continued carrying water from the river to the forest in its tiny beak. Like the hummingbird, Wangari Muta Maathai did something so small it seemed silly to the powerful ‘elephants’. She persisted and took the unrecognised, unvalued work of countless, nameless rural women and weaved it into a movement that had global impact. Connecting the dots, Wangari provides clear guidance on the action we must take to stop the decimation of our planet. A loving, laughing guardian of our earth is no longer with us, but her wisdom cannot be buried.

Pregs Govender

This blog is based on a 2011 speech Pregs wrote aimed at COP17, before her 2015 World Social Science Forum inaugural Wangari Maathai Lecture

Wangari Maathai was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in 2011

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