Friday, March 8, 2013

Tribute to Wangari Maathai

by Duncan Gromko

Source: Agencia Brasil
From Wangari's autobiography, Unbowed: "The roots burrowed deep into the ground, breaking through the rocks beneath the surface soil and diving into the underground water table. The water traveled up along the roots until it hit a depression or weak place in the ground and gushed out as a spring. Indeed, wherever these trees stood, there were likely to be streams. The reverence of the community had for the fig tree helped preserve the stream and the tadpoles that so captivated me. The trees also held the soil together, reducing erosion and landslides. In such ways, without conscious or deliberate effort, these cultural and spiritual practices contributed to the conservation of biodiversity."

On international women's day, it's important to recognize the crucial role that women play in natural resource management. It's unfortunate we need a special day to celebrate and honor one half of the population, but that's the state we're in.

Wangari is an environmental hero. Unbowed is an inspirational story that I recommend reading. She saw the direct relationship between human well-being and the environment and fought to improve resource management. She faced overwhelming odds and powerful forces in Kenya, but risked her life and reputation to protect what she saw to be important. Eventually she was recognized internationally for her actions and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

When Wangari came home from education in America, she saw the degradation that had taken place in Kenya and recognized the resulting decline in ecosystem services - primarily watershed protection - provided by Kenya's "Water Towers." She then started the Green Belt Movement. The Green Belt Movement has planted over 51 million trees by working with the farmers and other small landowners that are particularly dependent on the environment.

Wangari was targeted by the political elite for her conservation work: "I was taken in a police van down a long, dirt road lined with small market stalls to the prison proper...I was put into a concrete, maximum-security cell with four other women and given a uniform, a pan to use as a toilet, and a blanket. The women wardens also cut off my braids." When she was released from jail, "I woke up and was confronted with the question of what to do with my life. I had no job and no salary. I had no pension and very few savings. I was about to be evicted from my house. Everything that I had hoped for and relied on was gone...I was down to zero."

After eventually winning her battle over the protection of Karura Forest: "In the end, what was important is that we showed we were not intimidated. We were in the right and had stood up for what we believed in. We were making a statement that this was a public forest and no houses should be built there...Today that beautiful forest is still there, helping Nariobi breathe, and more trees are being planted to reseed what was lost and restore its biodiversity and beauty."

Wangari died in September 2011. If you're a DC resident, I recommend visiting the memorial Wangari Gardens over at the intersection of Kenyon and Park. I've planted trees there with Casey Trees!

To learn more about women and the environment more generally, I recommend looking into the work that CIFOR is doing. Here's a short video that summaries the work they're doing; women are important to forests and forests are important to women:

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