By Jungwon Kim
Wangari Muta Maathai has been first many times in her life: the first girl in her family to attend school. The first woman to earn a PhD in East and Central Africa. The first female chair of a university department in Kenya. Now, the former political prisoner is a member of parliament and serves as assistant minister for the environment in Kenya’s fledgling democracy. Born to farmers in the rural highlands of Kenya, Maathai has a visceral understanding of how the health of the land impacts both individuals and nations. In 1977, she established the Green Belt Movement to help restore indigenous forests by paying women to plant trees in their villages. The movement has since spread across Africa and helped revive forests that had nearly been destroyed by clear cutting. One of her mottos is the biblical exhortation "Rise Up and Walk," spoken by the Christian disciple Peter to a beggar. Throughout her long life as an activist, she has led ordinary people in doing just that, in order to defend their basic rights. For this she earned the ire of Kenya’s former authoritarian president, Daniel Arap Moi, and spent many a night in crowded, filthy jail cells. In person, Maathai, now 67, gives a hearty, matriarchal embrace and speaks with a lilting vehemence. The following is excerpted from a long morning of conversation with Kenya’s Nobel Laureate.
Amnesty International: AI members around the world were delighted when you won the Nobel Peace Prize, especially since the organization was expanding its mandate to include economic, social and cultural rights.
Wangari Maathai: First of all, I want to thank Amnesty International, because I have been a great beneficiary of Amnesty’s great network, and your capacity to shout so loud that the grip of oppression is eased, or reduced altogether. I also want to commend Amnesty International for expanding the concept of "rights."
AI: How is sustainable development connected to human rights?
WM: If you are denied your economic and social rights, you are literally denied the opportunity to exist. It is in the course of seeking that justice that people come into conflict with the people in power, and therefore they are arrested, sometimes they may be given an unfair trial and put in jail. One of the reasons I feel that the Norwegian Nobel Committee gave me the prize was to make the connections between resources, governance and peace. You cannot have peace if you do not get away from our current paradigm of governance, which is the cause of many conflicts. We must find another way of managing the resources we have if we don’t want to continue cutting each other’s necks over these resources.
AI: You once fought local and then national authorities to prevent developers from building a skyscraper in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. At the time, did you see it as a human rights struggle?
WM: I knew that people needed fresh air and space to escape to—especially in crowded cities, and especially people who lived in very crowded slums. People used to ask me, "Why are you fighting for the park? It’s not your park, it belongs to the government." But I was arguing that we have the so-called commons. We have air, we have water, we have land, we have atmosphere, we have soil. These commons are essential for our survival. Yet as long as there is plenty, we take these commons for granted. They can be violated. They can be polluted. They can be destroyed by companies and by governments because we are persuaded to believe they do not belong to us.There are other rights besides civil and political rights—there are economic rights, environmental rights. And these environmental rights are extremely important on a planet where resources are limited.
AI: When you fought for these rights during the Moi regime, you were jailed. Yet in 2002, you were elected to parliament in Kenya’s fledgling democracy and are now the assistant minister for the environment. How would you describe the journey Kenya has made between then and now?
WM: I think Kenya has made tremendous progress in the development of astrong civil society. It has been very active, despite the pressure. We managed to change the very oppressive one-party political system. We introduced political parties, and now we have more political parties than we know what to do with. We introduced a lot of space for press, so we have a relatively free press. We have more radio stations than you may care to turn on, yet at one time there was only one radio station that was controlled by the state, one television station that was controlled by the state. I am emphasizing the need for people in Africa to build strong civil societies, because we all know that leaders anywhere will get away with murder if they can. The only way more leaders don’t do so is because they have checks and balances on them.
AI: Is ethnic conflict still a danger in Kenya?
WM: From where I sit, many of the conflicts we have, whether at the national level or regional level, are really about resources and the fact that those who are in power are not promoting equitable distribution of those resources. That makes it easier for what I would call "tribal lords," who later on become warlords, to exploit the situation and cause people to take up arms and fight their fellow citizens.
AI: In recent years, you have turned your attention to debt relief. Why are you focusing on this issue?
WM: Debt, as we all know, accumulated during the Cold War, when it was necessary for the two superpowers to have areas of influence. One of the carrots was to facilitate these huge loans, and unfortunately in many countries, especially in Africa, the checks and balances at the national level were very poor. Leaders were able to borrow a lot of money but not use that money for development. Instead, they either misused or pocketed it. Some of it, we now know, was hidden in secret accounts outside the countries. Now the lenders knew this. But they continued to give—against the basic principles of lending. The terms were so bad — for example, interest only — that I’m sure the borrowers never expected to be able to pay. The debts have now become so huge that a large portion of the national revenue is sent to these lenders. The structure of the loan was such that these people will never, ever be able to repay these debts. That’s why we are now using the term "illegitimate debt." We launched a global debt relief campaign called Jubilee 2000 and collected more than 17 million signatures worldwide. We tried to convince G-8 countries and the World Bank and other financial institutions that these debts have been paid more than twice and sometimes more than three times.
AI: What was the response?
WM: Nothing much happened. The G-8 countries continued to demand the repayment of that debt. But what we should really be saying is that these debts have been more than repayed—twice, three times, four times over.
AI: Were you frustrated by the lack of response to the Jubilee 2000 campaign?
WM: We should say, "It is not yet successful." But we are still working at it, and some signs of hope have come from it—for example the HIPC [Heavily Indebted Poor Countries] initiative, in which some countries were given debt relief and the opportunity to use that money at the national level for development programs such as education and health facilities. We have also begun to see individual countries, like Norway, break away individually from the common front and cancel debts. Things don’t happen overnight. You achieve by struggling, not by lying down. There is a voice inside that talks to you when you are alone and silent. That voice I have come to call "the God in me," and it tells me when I’m right, when I’m pretending, when I’m dishonest, when I’m fair. If you follow it and are committed to it, you will get somewhere