An Unbreakable Link: Peace, Environment, and Democracy

By Maathai, Wangari | Harvard International Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

An Unbreakable Link: Peace, Environment, and Democracy


Maathai, Wangari, Harvard International Review


The reality that sustainable development, democracy, and peace are indivisible concepts should not be denied. Peace cannot exist without equitable development, just as development requires sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space. In order to advance peace, we must promote its underlying democratic institutions and ideals. In large part, this is only possible if management of the environment is pursued as a universal priority. Only a holistic approach that takes these interlinked factors into account can ensure effective, ecologically sustainable development.

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The Norwegian Nobel Committee challenged the world to appreciate this link and, in doing so, broadened our understanding of peace and security. The task at hand is to act on this challenge. This entails motivating leaders to build fair and just societies in which resources are shared equitably; to protect the environment to ensure that the needs of future generations are not compromised; and to expand democratic space, particularly for women and minorities, so that minority representation can exist alongside majority rule. Setting a foundation for peace and development requires that citizens feel vested in a common future and empowered to realize their own potential in addressing the problems they face.

Sustainable Development and the Environment

In many developing countries, particularly in Africa, environmental problems are relegated to the periphery because they do not appear to be as urgent as other issues. Protecting the environment is often seen as a convenient luxury when, in reality, it is a question of life and death. People cannot survive without clean drinking water, which comes from the forested mountains, or live without the food that is grown in fertile fields watered by the rains. Even the air we breathe needs trees to provide oxygen and recycle carbon dioxide. Our very survival depends on the survival of our fragile ecosystems.

The Green Belt Movement (GBM) was initiated in 1977 with the planting of seven trees on World Environment Day. It was conceived as a practical way to address the needs that rural women were facing, specifically for clean drinking water, nutritious food, firewood, and fodder. These are all benefits that come from the land. Simple methods of caring for the environment have a huge impact on the health of communities as well as on economic empowerment and growth. Because the land had been so degraded, an obvious solution was to rehabilitate it by planting trees. Trees stop soil erosion, thus conserving water. In addition, tree planting is a simple and realistic goal which guarantees successful results within a reasonable amount of time. In the Green Belt Movement model, trees provide women with the basic needs they require to sustain their families--food, fuel, shelter, and income--since women receive monetary compensation for every tree that survives up to three months.

Working with women to teach them how to plant and care for trees was a natural choice. Throughout Africa, women are the primary caretakers, tilling the land and feeding their families. As a result, they are often the first to feel the effects of environmental damage as vital resources become scarce and even unusable. Environmental degradation forces them to walk farther to attain wood for cooking and heating, to search for clean water, and to find new sources of food as old ones disappear. When the environment is destroyed, plundered, or mismanaged, it is their quality of life, and that of their children and families, that is ultimately undermined.

In addition to planting and nurturing new trees, it is imperative to protect and conserve the trees that still stand in forests around the world. Forests are catchment areas for water; without them, flash floods would carry away the soil and nutrients needed for agriculture. Forests also serve as major carbon sinks, trapping carbon dioxide and thus helping to maintain the climate.

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An Unbreakable Link: Peace, Environment, and Democracy
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