"Too often, when we talk about conservation, we don't think about culture. But we human beings have evolved in the environment in which we find ourselves. For every one of us, wherever we were, the environment shaped us: it shaped our values; it shaped our bodies; it shaped our religion. A focus on culture is important to environmentalists as well as to traditional communities," writes Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel peace prize winner and environment minister of Kenya.
Mount Kenya is a World Heritage Site. The Equator passes right on its top, and it has a unique habitat and heritage. Because it is a glacier-topped mountain, it is the source of many of Kenya's rivers. Now, partly because of climate change and partly because of logging and encroachment through cultivation of crops, the glaciers are melting. Many of the rivers flowing from Mount Kenya have either dried up or become very low. Its biological diversity is threatened as the forests fall.
"What shall we do to conserve this forest?" I asked myself. As I tried to encourage women and the African people in general to understand the need to conserve the environment, I discovered how crucial it is to return constantly to our cultural heritage.
Mount Kenya used to be a holy mountain for my people, the Kikuyus. They believed that their God dwelled on the mountain and that everything good--the rains, clean drinking water--flowed from it. As long as they saw the clouds (the mountain is a very shy mountain, usually hiding behind clouds), they knew they would get rain.
And then the missionaries came. With all due respect to the missionaries (they are the ones who really taught me), in their wisdom, or lack of it, they said, "God does not dwell on Mount Kenya. God dwells in heaven."
We have been looking for heaven, but we have not found it. Men and women have gone to the moon and back and have not seen heaven. Heaven is not above us: it is right here, right now.
So the Kikuyu people were not wrong when they said that God dwelled on the mountain, because if God is omnipresent, as theology tells us, then God is on Mount Kenya too. If believing that God is on Mount Kenya is what helps people conserve their mountain, I say that's okay. If people still believed this, they would not have allowed illegal logging or clear-cutting of the forests.
After working with different Kenyan communities for more than two decades, the Green Belt Movement (GBM), which I led until joining the new Kenyan government in January 2003, also concluded that culture should be incorporated into any development paradigm that has at its heart the welfare of the people.
The Green Belt Movement's mission is mobilising community consciousness for self-determination, equity, improved livelihood security and environmental conservation--using trees as the entry point. When we began, we believed that all that was needed was to teach people how to plant trees and make connections between their own problems and their degraded environment.
But in the course of struggles to realise GBM's mission and vision, we realised that some of the communities had lost aspects of their culture which had actually facilitated the conservation of the beautiful environment the first European explorers and missionaries recorded in their diaries and textbooks.
Culture is an important part of humanity. Development agencies, religious leaders and academic institutions are increasingly recognising its central role in the political, economic and social life of communities. A focus on culture is important to environmentalists as well as to traditional communities. Too often, when we talk about conservation, we don't think about culture. But we human beings have evolved in the environment in which we find ourselves. For every one of us, wherever we were, the environment shaped us: it shaped our values; it shaped our bodies; it shaped our religion. …