Maathai discusses African development

Feb. 14, 2012, 2:50 a.m.

Wanjira Maathai, daughter of the late 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, discussed her mother’s vision of sustainable development for Kenya, as well as the ongoing challenges the country faces, when she spoke to an audience of approximately 40 people at the Y2E2 Building Monday evening.


“She is the voice of the new Africa and has impressed her own footprints on the path of her mother’s vision,” said Tanaka Mawindi ‘13, co-president of the Stanford African Students Association (SASA), as she introduced Maathai to the audience.


Wangari Maathai, mother of Wanjira, founded the Green Belt Movement (GBM) in Kenya in 1977. The GBM began as a grassroots tree-planting program intended to tackle deforestation and has since evolved into a global organization that addresses environmental and human development issues while fighting for female empowerment.


To date, the organization has planted over 40 million trees in Kenya and around the world, a number it hopes to increase to one billion.


Wanjira Maathai currently serves on the GBM Board of Directors and, since 2002, has been directing International Affairs for the organization.


The event, titled, “Trees for Africa and Beyond: The Vision Continues,” focused on GBM’s vision of sustainable development for Kenya, as well as the history of the organization and its future plans. The event was held in a question-and-answer format and was moderated by Alon Tal, a visiting professor at the Center for Conservation Biology.


Maathai emphasized the widespread nature of GBM’s work, which extends to food security, energy, education and women’s rights.


“All these issues affect one another,” she said. “We find that the best way to address them is through community-level projects.”


“It is key to point out the devastating effects of deforestation from an economic viewpoint,” she added. “It leads to things like the destruction of water systems and the decline of tourism. This is a language that people understand.”


According to Maathai, her proudest achievement is the role that the organization has played in increasing environmental awareness in Kenya.


“The biggest challenge for us initially was that environmental [issues] became political,” she said. “Someone had to speak for the environment because the government was abusing it, and that got us into some trouble.”


Maathai said that persistent advocacy helped Kenyans become more aware and educated on environmental issues and helped the organization to “win in the court of public opinion.”


Maathai invited Stanford students to become involved in the organization, citing her mother’s 2006 visit to East Palo Alto to initiate a tree-planting initiative by Canopy, a local environmental non-governmental organization (NGO). To date, 1,600 trees have been planted.


“Growing up, some people didn’t really understand the value of trees,” said East Palo Alto resident Nancy Leech, who was part of the 2006 initiative and attended Monday’s talk. “Wangari inspired the community to pay greater attention to the environment.”


Addressing the future, Maathai said the organization’s main goal is to anchor its position and ensure that her mother’s vision lives on since her death last September. The establishment of the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies in Nairobi, which she heads, has contributed to this effort, Maathai said.


“GBM’s intertwining of human development and the environment is one of the most inspiring stories I have seen in the environmental sphere,” said audience member Michael Peñuelas ‘15. “I was impressed by her incredible drive and the pertinence of the issues she raised.”

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