EarthSky joins the world in mourning the death of Wangari Muta Maathai, Africa’s first woman Nobel laureate and Kenya’s foremost environmental conservationist. She is best known for sowing the grassroots based Green Belt Movement, which has planted over 40 million trees across Africa, and that continues to empower ordinary Kenyans to conserve the environment as a way of political and cultural emancipation. Her deep feeling for the interconnectedness between culture, politics, economics and environment has been a ground-breaking approach to conservation, and an inspiration to many. It is with sadness at her passing – yet joy in her many profound achievements – that we offer this EarthSky interview with Wangari Maathai from 2009. She spoke to EarthSky’s Jorge Salazar.
Why does the Green Belt movement focus on planting trees?
Scientists tell us that 20 percent of the greenhouse gases, especially carbon, is coming from deforestation and degradation of forests. And especially of the huge tropical forests, in the Amazonia, in the Congo, and southeast Asia, three blocks of forest that are often referred to as the ‘three lungs of the planet.’ They control, they regulate, the climate of the world.
People need to understand that if you didn’t have trees, that are taking away carbon dioxide from the atmosphere constantly, we would suffocate in our own carbon dioxide. Even the carbon dioxide that we are exhaling ourselves, let alone that which is coming from our transport, the cars, the planes, and all the other activities that we do, burning charcoal and all the other fossil fuels.
So, folks, trees are the best friends you have on the planet. They need to be planted, and those that are standing need to be protected and appreciated.
What is the most important thing you want people to know about climate change?
What I would like people to know is that it’s real, it’s here. We cannot deny.
For the people who say that the science is wrong, well, suppose the science is right. This is one issue that I wish we would not play around with or we would not experiment with because it’s a matter of life and death.
Alternately, even if the 4,000 scientists were wrong, planting trees, changing from a high carbon lifestyle to a low carbon lifestyle, protecting our forests, and in reducing these greenhouse gases can only make the planet better for our children and their children. So whatever we do, as long as we are reducing emissions, we are doing a great thing for the planet.
Africa is one of the places in the world that might be hardest hit by climate change. Your thoughts?
I’m very concerned about Africa and climate change, because Africa, we all know that Africa has contributed negligible amounts of greenhouse gases. And yet scientists are telling us that she’s going to receive very negative feedback.
Because many countries in Africa, south of the Sahara especially, are poor, they are very unprepared for this crisis. So as we have seen recently, when the rains didn’t come for three years, the government announced an emergency in the country. And over ten million people are in danger. That’s only an indication of the kind of crisis we are likely to face in the future.
So it’s very, very serious, and it’s largely due to the fact that Africa has not prepared herself for an environmental crisis.
Why are tropical forests continuing to disappear?
Quite often when we think of deforestation, we think of people in the poorer regions of the world, and we think that they’re the one who are deforesting. But I can tell you with confidence that a lot of deforestation, for example in the Congo, is not being done by the indigenous people who live in those forests.
It’s being done by huge international companies that are selling the timber with the approval of the government.
So, as we try to save the forests, it’s not only the local governments that need to be concerned, but it’s also the consumers to whom this timber is brought, usually the developed world.
Jorge Salazar has conducted thousands of in-depth interviews with scientists in the process of creating science content for EarthSky. He also helps host the 90-second EarthSky podcasts. Jorge has a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Texas at Austin. He knows a lot about a lot of different things. For EarthSky, he has explored subjects as diverse as nanotechnology, ecosystem-based management, climate change, global health, international environmental treaties, astrophysics and cosmology, and environmental security. His penetrating research style, poetic writing, and ability to track down and speak with Nobel prize-winning laureates, all make him a huge asset to EarthSky.