“Almost every war” is over natural resources

Wangari Maathai is the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Her work has spanned science, ecology and politics in her own country, Kenya, and now she's taking her message to the world. Interview by Isabel Hilton.

Isabel Hilton: Professor Maathai, your story all began with one fig tree, a fig tree that you knew when you were a child. Could you tell me about that fig tree and what its significance was?

Wangari Maathai: When I was growing up in the highlands of Kenya, there were many fig trees, which were normally very huge, mysterious trees. They were nearly always green and had a huge canopy. But there was one particular tree that was very close to our household, and I must have collected some of the twigs that had fallen from this fig tree as I was collecting firewood for my mother, because I remember my mother telling me not to collect twigs from the fig tree. When I asked her why I should not, she advised that this was a tree of God. This tree is never cut; it is never burnt; it is never used for anything. Later on, I understood that when our people would offer burnt offerings they would do so at a fig tree. Fig trees were for all practical purposes a sacred tree, a revered tree. Not a God, but a tree that reminded my people of the mystery and the power, the greatness of the creator who was responsible for them and all the living things around them.

IH: But despite this, the fig tree that you knew, that straddled a stream that you played in, was cut down. What happened when the fig tree was cut down?

WM: This fig tree was cut down some 20 years later, when we introduced cash crops: tea, in this particular area. And because this fig tree was a huge tree, it was perceived to occupy a lot of land, and waste a lot of land where we could plant tea bushes to make money. So the farmer cut the tree and planted tea bushes.

When I visited the tree and found that it had been cut and saw where the [tea] bushes were, I was sad but also happy. Sad that the tree had been cut, but happy that nothing was growing where the fig tree used to stand. It was as if the ground refused to support anything else now that the fig tree was gone.

IH: What had happened to the stream?

WM: I came to understand much later that in fact these fig trees are very important in the ecosystem. They were part and parcel of a system that held the soil together, that prevented soil erosion and prevented landslides. And as I understood much later, the roots of this tree went deep into the belly of the earth, and reached the underground water reservoirs, which allowed the water to come up around these roots and to break where the land was weak. The land was weak right next to our house, where our stream broke. This was the stream that our house used, I used to go to this stream and fetch water for my mother. So when the tree was cut – amazingly – the stream disappeared. And this for me was the mystery that made the tree become significant to me. Especially later on when I understood the environment and understood how everything in the ecosystem is playing a role.

We may not understand it, but everything is playing a role. This fig tree was not only a habitat for birds and for animals. It was not only a beautiful tree providing shade, but it was also playing a role in the water system. And it was the reason this little stream was flowing, and my family could have clean drinking water.

IH: Looking back – what is the effect of your work on Kenya? Do you think that you have reversed this terrible environmental damage? You’ve certainly planted a lot of trees, but has this been enough?

WM: In areas where people have responded positively, especially among farming communities, the transformation of the landscape and the transformation of the people themselves has been revolutionary. To see ordinary people in charge of their environment; ordinary people concerned about their environment; ordinary people putting pressure on the government to protect, for example, forests. Forests are very important in our agricultural practices; we need rain, we need water, we need soil – and these are nourished by the rains that come from the forests. So it has been a wonderful experience to see these achievements.

Perhaps the next most important, besides the planting of the trees, has been the raising of awareness among ordinary people: the peasant farmers, the government officials, the policy-makers, not only in my country but within Africa – and now worldwide, to help in the collective raising of awareness. There are very many of us environmentalists, people working for human rights, people working for women’s rights and people working for environmental rights. And we have raised awareness to the point that the world is becoming more and more aware that the environment is very, very important. I think that maybe the culmination of this awareness was the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the environment. To have linked the sustainable management of the environment with good governance, respect for human rights, respect for the rule of law and peace.

IH: What exactly is that connection, though? I think many people who think of the environment think of it as either a scientific matter or a matter of culture. But they don’t make a connection between the environment and politics or the environment and peace, what exactly is that connection?

WM: Many of us are educated – or persuaded – to think in boxes. So we think separately about peace, and we think we can work for peace. So we think separately about human rights, and we think we can work for human rights – or environmental rights.

But what the Norwegian Nobel committee was challenging us to do was to rethink this paradigm. To rethink this mental attitude we have about separating things, and think holistically. Think of many conflicts – conflicts within your area, far away from your area and far away from your country – and ask yourself: why are those people fighting? Almost every war is over access and control of resources. What the Norwegian Nobel committee was saying is that we cannot enjoy peace on this planet if we do not learn to manage our limited resources responsibly and accountably; and if we do not learn to share these resources more equitably. Quite often we think that those who have the power, those who have the guns and those who have the technology can access any resource at the expense of anybody. But sooner or later those who are marginalised and denied access to those resources will somehow seek justice – economic justice and social justice – and that’s how the conflict ensues.

That is the linkage we need to understand. And that’s the linkage we often don’t make, partly because when we go to school that’s not what we are taught. We need to rethink peace and security, we need to expand the definition to include sustainable management of our resources and their equitable distribution, and that will only happen if we govern ourselves in a way that we respect human rights, we respect the rule of law and we respect the diversity of our human species. Because we are very diverse, but wherever we are, whoever we are, whether we are many or few, whether we are dominant or subdued, we need to feel that we matter, that we are important in the society where we belong.

IH: Western environmentalists are often criticised in the developing world, on the grounds that the west and its model of development carried an environmental cost, but on the whole people became much more prosperous. And now large developing countries such as India and China are following the same path. So when western environmentalists complain about the environmental costs of that development, people in India and China say: but you did it, why shouldn’t we? What would you say to those criticisms? Are you one of those environmentalists who are trying to hold back the development of poor countries?

WM: Obviously it is a very difficult question. It’s very easy to say that the west pursued a very destructive development process at a time when many of the resources in the world were at their disposal, partly because they had the political power – many were colonial powers – and they also had made great advances in science and technology. They also were able to accumulate a lot of wealth both within and outside their countries.

But I want to go back to that challenge that the Norwegian Nobel Committee was giving to the world in the year 2004, which emphasised that we have limited resources. Because we have limited resources, and we have a planet that has limited capacity, are we going to literally hang ourselves to death? Are we going to destroy ourselves? Are we going to compete with each other to see who will kill this planet faster? I think that would not be very wise.

I know it is very difficult to tell upcoming economies: “don’t do it.” But what we are saying is: let us look at alternative paths to development. [Let’s not] prevent achieving a high quality of life, but there is a difference between high quality of life, and high consumption patterns. The pattern that the west has developed is an extremely wasteful, consumptive lifestyle that clearly needs to be changed. They have to accept the resources are limited. If they are going to over-consume, they are actually over-consuming at the expense of other people. So, it is not just China or India or other upcoming economies that need to rethink – it is everybody. And it is especially those who have already made much progress and those who have adopted a very consumptive pattern.

From another perspective, right now, we are looking at the reports that have just come from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). They are saying that for the first time they are 90% certain that human activities are responsible for the warming up of the planet. These human activities include the burning of fossil fuels, the fossil fuels that are being engaged in the upcoming economies. If we are indeed at a point where our planet is threatened, do the Indians and the Chinese and other upcoming economies want to say: “let us sink together”? Are we going to follow the mistakes that were made by the western world? Or are we going to put pressure on the western world to cut down drastically on their emissions and to change their lifestyles, so that they can save themselves?

Africa is one of the areas that is going to be very adversely hit by climate change, yet Africa has contributed very little towards the problem. Are we saying Africa doesn’t matter? Are we saying other countries that haven’t reached that level of development don’t matter? I think that India, China, the US, Europe and all these highly-developed countries need to assume a moral responsibility towards the protection of the earth and life as we know it.


In 1977, Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt movement, which has inspired many, often poor women in Africa to plant more than 30 million trees. In 2004 Professor Maathai became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.


Isabel Hilton is the editor of

Homepage photo by Martin Rowe