Prof. Maathai Africa's Forest Goddess: Within a Week of Winning the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, Professor Wangari Maathai Was Back at Work, Criss-Crossing the Country, Dressed as Usual in a Simple Kitenge Cloth Wrap and Sandals. Alnoor Amlani Looks Back at the Career of One of the Most Feisty Forces in Modern African History

By Amlani, Alnoor | African Business, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Prof. Maathai Africa's Forest Goddess: Within a Week of Winning the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, Professor Wangari Maathai Was Back at Work, Criss-Crossing the Country, Dressed as Usual in a Simple Kitenge Cloth Wrap and Sandals. Alnoor Amlani Looks Back at the Career of One of the Most Feisty Forces in Modern African History


Amlani, Alnoor, African Business


Most Africans think of Kenya as a green country--but that is only because few ever visit the north of the country. Kenya is on the fringes of the vast north African desert that covers much of Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Chad. Kenya's once luxuriant forests have been decimated to a paltry 2% of forest cover--according to environmentalists just one fifth of an essential 10%. They now form a far smaller proportion of Kenya's territory than in both of its East African neighbours--Uganda and Tanzania. Indeed, even most European countries have forests that exceed this level.

Drought is now a regular occurrence in Kenya, and blame is placed (at least in part) on the way forest cover has been destroyed in recent years. The depletion of Kenya's once plentiful tree cover has caused the water table to sink, or disappear, and allowed a disastrous erosion of top soil. The annual droughts that now ravage this country are a direct result of its poor forest conservation and management.

Nairobi may still be the world's only city where you can take a photograph of a lion wandering free against a backdrop of city skyscrapers, but this may not be the case much longer if the destruction of the nation's forest continues at the same rate. Nobody conducts regular research or compiles a comprehensive census of Kenya's flora and fauna--but the depleted forests are only too clearly discernible from satellite photographs. Until now, the battle against the plunder of Kenya's forests has been fought by a passionate few working within civil society organisations, and some in government and the private sector. But they have been greatly assisted by activists drawn from the hard working communities of rural peoples.

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They heard Professor Maathai's message, heeded her warnings and took action. Over the past 30 years, they have managed to plant some 30m trees.

The Nobel Prize will give Maathai's campaign a valuable boost and encourage her followers in their quest of preserving existing forests, reforesting land that has been cleared, and reclaiming the desert landscapes of northern Kenya.

Kenyans also hope that Prof. Maathai's Peace Prize award will deter the forces of corruption that threaten to destroy one of the last places on earth where biodiversity can co-exist with the activities of man in relative proximity. The battle for resources between man and the natural world has led to the demise of many creatures. In Europe, for example, many animals that are now found only on other continents, were wiped out by European man many centuries ago. These probably include the mammoth, a close relative of the elephant, and big cats. Wolves and bears were also eradicated comparatively recently in the British Isles. If the magnificent creatures that are indigenous to East Africa are to avoid this fate, conservationists like Prof. Maathai must draw on the active support of the international community.

A CONTINENT FIRST

Prof. Maathai is the first African woman ever to win the coveted Nobel Peace Prize. She was born in Kenya's beautiful and, at one time, lush uplands--in Nyeri. She once described herself as a 'daughter of the soil' reflecting the Kikuyu tradition of venerating, even worshipping the spirit of the land--grasslands, forests, fauna and flora. Over the past 150 years, first British colonial settlers and later Kenyan farmers devastated the landscape, clearing millions of acres of forest--leaving barely 2% of the country's forest cover intact.

"I was hearing complaints from women," Maathai recalls, "I was discovering there was a lot of malnutrition in my part of the country."

With a doctorate in biological sciences, she realised that the key to development, and peace--since most conflicts are over diminishing natural resources--was the environment. She was determined to reverse the deforestation that she saw taking place all around her.

In 1977, she founded the Green Belt movement.

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Prof. Maathai Africa's Forest Goddess: Within a Week of Winning the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, Professor Wangari Maathai Was Back at Work, Criss-Crossing the Country, Dressed as Usual in a Simple Kitenge Cloth Wrap and Sandals. Alnoor Amlani Looks Back at the Career of One of the Most Feisty Forces in Modern African History
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