NOTE: This interview excerpt is transcript only
Wanjira Mathai is a resonant voice of the New Africa. As the Director of Partnerships for Women’s Entrepreneurship in Renewables (wPOWER) and the Wangari Maathai Institute (WMI), Wanjira is working to unlock the potential of women and women's groups to elevate grassroots clean energy and land restoration movements. Having previously directed International Affairs at the Green Belt Movement (GBM), which was founded by her mother - the late Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai - Wanjira has worked for much of her life to help empower some of the largest and most successful ecological and progressive social models of possibility in Africa.
On Leading Transcript
Seana Lowe Steffen, host: What would you say are the keys to your success and having the scale of impact that you are having?
Wanjira Mathai, guest: I think the main element of the approach is that it has to be community-based. Local engagement is critical. You can’t come in with a solution and expect people to adopt it, whether you are talking about health, whether you are talking about environmental protection, whatever the subject. I have found that you still have to start at the same place where local communities have to take ownership of the message and of the solutions and make them their own, or even come up with their own. I think that has been true across the board. That is the core: understanding what the issues are and taking action, and I can’t think of an issue that changes that. So in this case we are talking about environmental protection and tree planting in particular. Understanding the linkages between the environment and the devastation around and the suffering resulting from it. Understanding the possible solutions and then taking action, “What can I do about it?” I worked in health and it was about understanding those diseases and their life cycles, and how our own actions interfere or interact with the disease. It is always a similar dynamic.
Seana: If you could change one thing in the world with a snap of your fingers right now, what would you change and why?
Wanjira: I certainly would change the state of interpersonal and intercultural communication. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding in the world. There is a lot of suspicion that often leads to violence. I come from a continent that is quite misunderstood, that is quite demonized. If you are away from it, especially as I was studying in the United States, you can almost forget how good it is because you lived there, you grew up there, you are a product of it. And if you are okay, surely where you came from must be okay. I have always felt that that is really an awful cancer if you will—that misunderstanding, misconception—that builds up and breeds violence in all it’s forms. Suspicion can also be extremely dehumanizing.
Seana: Given your experience and exposure, what do you think it’s really going to take to overcome the barriers of getting on the right bus and living sustainably?
Wanjira: That’s a big question. I think it will take different things. In this age, if you look from an environmental lens, it’s certainly evaluating our consumption patterns, and how we extract and what we put back, and how each of us is doing our own part to limit and reduce our footprint, so to speak.
Seana: Thank you. Is there anything else you would like to say?
Wanjira: Health has always been one of my most important passions, so I think obviously living healthier, whether that means nutritionally, environmentally – remember, a healthy environment fosters healthy people. It’s really looking at the whole system and seeing how we interact with it. I think the “footprint” usually well defines it all.
Seana: So you have been on the forefront of this work, what are you seeing as the next frontier?
Wanjira: Honestly, I wouldn’t say I have been on the frontier of this at all. I joined the organization not that long ago. Not to diminish what I have done but if you were talking to some of our officers or one of my colleagues, who has been at this 25 years, I think they have been on the frontier doing the difficult work. What I think is the next frontier, in any case, is the fact that the Green Belt Movement is a tested approach. It’s an approach that is complex – it’s the heavy lifting in the development process. I heard someone say, “You know, you are doing the most difficult part of development, working with local people and trying to change one person at a time at the local, local level.” That’s the most difficult part of this work. That is where we are now. But the next frontier is institutionalizing the work of the Green Belt Movement. Now that we understand from this work that it is so critical to be driven by values and ethics, to have a positive attitude towards the environment and the communities you are working with, to understand in a holistic way the linkages between the environment and peace, and that as practitioners. How do we impact the communities so that we bring about transformational change? How do we do that? What skills do we need? The University of Nairobi has agreed to institutionalize that thinking, so that any student, any graduate, any practitioner in this field, and even in other fields, architecture, engineers, could come to the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace & Environmental Studies (WMI) and understand that they have a role to play in the development process of our country, and it’s not from a distance. You have to literally get your hands dirty, transfer practical skills and strategies with the communities we serve and create a population that is passionate about nature.
Seana: You mentioned a bit about that over lunch in Nairobi, and the difficulty people have in thinking about the environment holistically, for e.g. “making the link between the fish, the quality of the water, and the riparian area that needs to be reforested.” Professor Maathai also spoke about that in Green Gurus, that “…many people do not see the environment as something that is integral to our daily lives.” What is it that keeps people from making those holistic links and how do you think we can overcome that?
Wanjira: Understanding the linkages, understanding how critical these are. To give you an example, today we were in a meeting. People are always talking about the importance of trees. Why are trees important? Trees are important because they provide us with fresh air, they clean our environment, they give us shade, they give us fruit, they are beautiful. But what exactly is the value of that tree in economic terms? The NY Parks Department actually quantified the value of a tree, and they came up with the value of a tree per year, and the older the tree gets, the more services it provides, and so the higher the value. That is so important because if, in the environmental movement, we are in a space where we are trying to share the message on climate change, “Trees are critical because they serve as carbon sinks. They help to hold the carbon from the air, and that deforestation is responsible for twenty percent of carbon emissions.” This gives you a monetary value for taking certain actions, because the drivers of deforestation are economic: timber for furniture and construction, for example, and both have a monetary value. But if you can show the monetary value of a standing tree, and indeed that it provides more economically standing than as timber, you start to change a lot of people because, I think people really make those linkages, eventually. “This is what it means to say that they are more valuable standing than cut down.” We say that all the time in the environmental movement. We say that all the time for climate change. We talk about twenty percent of the problem is from deforestation, but do we give some of these hard figures so that people can start to connect? Because the bottom line for humans is that as soon as we understand and appreciate the dilemma, we are moved to action.
Seana: What do you mean when you say, “The environment is political?”
Wanjira: The environment is political because a lot of times, at least in our local situation, environmental issues have always been part of the political discourse. Protecting the environment, for some people at least, means retarding development. People believe that unless there is infrastructural development, buildings going up, there’s not development going on, and that economic development cannot happen without damage to the environment. This becomes a political discussion. For us at the Green Belt Movement, protecting the environment has always been about protecting the commons for relaxation, reflection, and recharging. The environment has also been about not being shortsighted. We must not compromise future survival for short-term gains.
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