Wangari Maathai Appeals To U.S. To Save Endangered Rainforests
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
As we continue our conversations about Africa today, we're joined by Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai. She's a former Kenyan parliamentarian, a professor and environmental and human rights activist and the author of several books, most recently "The Challenge for Africa." We caught up with her in the midst of a speaking tour that she was on to raise awareness about climate change. She was on hand at the recent U.N. General Assembly meeting and the Clinton Global Initiative meeting, where she called for U.S. leadership to save the world's disappearing rainforests.
Later in the conversation, we'll talk about the political situation in Kenya, where it's been almost two years since fighting erupted, following the disputed election of President Mwai Kibaki, where more than 1,300 people died in the fighting and hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes. Wangari Maathai, we appreciate the opportunity to have you back on the program. Thank you so much for stopping by.
Professor WANGARI MAATHAI (Nobel Peace Prize Winner): Well, thank you very much. It's great to be here.
MARTIN: I want to talk to you, of course, about the situation in Kenya. But first, we did want to talk about the purpose of your tour, which is to pressure, if I can use that word, the U.S. leadership to address climate change, particularly the world's vanishing rainforests. What specifically do you want the U.S. to government to do?
Prof. MAATHAI: Well, I want to use the word appeal because I want to say that the United States of America has a moral responsibility as a world global leader to really provide the leadership that we did not get in Kyoto and especially did not consider forests as a major part of the solution to climate change. So the issue now is that the world is meeting in Copenhagen in December and we would like to see the world agree that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because they have the possibility of creating global warming that could have adverse impact on millions of people around the globe.
MARTIN: I think I understand, I think a lot of people understand the importance sort of overall. But I think they're wondering what it is specifically you would like the U.S. to do. Would you like the U.S. to invest in the preservation of forests around the world?
And just for those who don't know, who don't remember, among your many notable accomplishments - you're the founder of the Green Belt Movement, which has helped women, mainly women, plant some 40 million trees, particularly in the developing world, and you are the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in part because of that work. But I guess the question becomes, what kind of leadership should the U.S. offer besides rhetorical and moral support, given that there is not even a bill in this country that can pass by the end of the year?
Prof. MAATHAI: Well, surely without a bill it will be very disappointing because I guess we cannot see the commitment of the United States of America in Copenhagen, which is extremely important. And secondly, the private sector has to play a very important part of mobilizing the resources that are needed so that they can continue operating. Otherwise, the option is to continue emitting these gases at the peril of our future generations or to do something. Now, the big question is - do we want to do something? We want something to be done. And we think that the United States of America has to provide the leadership.
MARTIN: Before we move on, you've been to Washington many times, but as I understand, this is your first time visiting the White House?
Prof. MAATHAI: Well, this is actually my first time and I'm so privileged. We were going to present these concerns and these appeals to the people in the White House. And we had this great opportunity of meeting His Excellency the president. I…
MARTIN: You got to meet the president?
Prof. MAATHAI: Yeah, I haven't come over it yet because it was a great opportunity because the first time I saw him was when he visited Kenya as a Senator, and since then we have only seen his extraordinary life on television. And so it was just an extraordinary moment for me.
MARTIN: Did you get your picture?
Prof. MAATHAI: I hope it will come out.
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Prof. MAATHAI: He said it was a moment in a lifetime.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm joined by Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai. If we could spend a few minutes on the situation in Kenya: When we last spoke, it was a few months after the election and tensions were very high. There was a lot of bloodshed. Eventually a power sharing agreement was struck, forming a coalition government, as we said, led by President Mwai Kibaki and the prime minister, Amola Odinga. But now there are those in the international community who say that neither party or both parties are not doing enough to actually resolve the issues that led to the violence to begin with. They're not moving to reform the judiciary. They're not moving to bring perpetrators of violence to justice. What is your view of this? Do you that that's a fair criticism?
Prof. MAATHAI: I think that's a fair criticism. I think that the tragedy that we face in our country is that the people who are engaged in the conflict, the protagonists, are the same people we are asking to resolve the conflict. That's where the tragedy is. And, as we know, there are people in the Cabinet, in parliament, who were involved either in inciting or in financing or in some way contributed toward the crisis, and asking them to create a law or create a tribunal that is going to try them or create a law that is going to ensure that they be handed over to an international criminal court in The Hague is, of course, something that you can expect that people will try their level best to protect themselves.
We cannot afford to face the next election without, first and foremost, demonstrating that when you commit gross violations of human rights, when you commit crimes against humanity, you cannot be rewarded for that. You have to be held accountable no matter who you are, no matter what position you have in the country.
MARTIN: Mr. Odinga says that the reason that the coalition government has not set up these local tribunals, which would evaluate material that could then go to the international criminal court, is that the government is more focused on reconciliation than in seeking accountability. Do you think that's credible?
Prof. MAATHAI: Now, first of all, I think it is very, very important for us to consider both as a country, Kenya, but also as Africans, because we have so many conflicts in Africa, it is extremely important for us to recognize that many of these conflicts are actually incited, they are financed, they are organized by leaders. And then the leaders mobilize their supporters, mostly supporters from their tribal communities, to go and kill and rape and destroy members of other tribal communities. And it is completely unacceptable, should be made completely unacceptable that these leaders get away with these kinds of crimes that they commit.
MARTIN: So they're trying to imply that this is just sort of feelings that people have, and you can't regulate feelings that people have. And what you're saying is that that's not true, that in fact these conflicts are being engineered by specific individuals who can be held to account.
Prof. MAATHAI: Absolutely, and that is partly why I'm so scared of what could happen in Kenya in 2012. The truth of the matter is many of those people in leadership positions, from top two members of parliament, have the capacity to tell their leaders to incite their followers and to create the same kind of mayhem that we saw in 2007. They also have a capacity to tell their people to hold peace.
And so, by not holding them to account, we are keeping the country at ransom, literally in their hands. And that is why it is very, very important not to say that we are trying to reconcile. To try to reconcile who? You are the same people who go and incite your tribesmen to go and attack members of other tribesmen. So how do you bring those tribesmen now and tell them: Tell each other you are sorry. They are not the ones who had anything against each other. You, the leaders, are the ones who incited. That's where the problem is.
MARTIN: Last week, the U.S. government sent 15 letters to top Kenyan officials, warning them of possible travel bans if they did not cooperate in instituting reforms, and President Kibaki has written a protest letter to President Obama. Is that enough? I mean, is the international community doing enough?
Prof. MAATHAI: Well, I know that there is probably a limit to what the international community can do to assist Kenyans solve their problems. But I also want to say that if we did not have the international community intervene, we would probably have gone the road towards Somalia or Rwanda or other genocidal mayhems that have happened in Africa.
So the international community is doing the right thing. My worry is: How much is expected from the international community short of interfering with the governance of the country for the African leadership to recognize that they have a responsibility to their own people? We should be very busy trying to do everything we can to make sure that we do not repeat what we did last year in 2012, but we are busy at the moment protecting each other.
MARTIN: And speaking of which, and thank you for stopping in, and you've been most generous with your time, how are you doing? I mean, you have not stopped speaking out. You've written editorials in international newspapers, talking about the situation there. You have been quite outspoken. Many people, as we have discussed, who have done so have found themselves harassed by the authorities. How are you doing?
Prof. MAATHAI: Well, fortunately, I'm happy to say that despite all the problems we have, we have a little more democratic space in Kenya. So I don't have to worry that I'll be detained, but I have to be careful, obviously. But I do want to say it is a responsibility. I am a person who has, for decades, been talking about the need for us to govern with justice, to govern with deep respect for human rights and to promote equity. And these are the issues that have actually eventually exploded as they did during the last general election, which really just gave people an opportunity to explode.
So I want to appeal to our leaders, as I always do, and say that we have a moral responsibility to lead our people in a democratic, in a just and fair way and not to take advantage of the fact that they are generally poor and rather uninformed and so willing to follow their tribal leaders.
MARTIN: Wangari Maathai is a former member of the Kenyan parliament, an environmental and human rights activist, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. She's the author of several books. Her most recent is "The Challenge for Africa." We caught up with her on a U.S. tour, where she was talking about the issue of climate change in advance of the Copenhagen Summit. Wangari Maathai, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Prof. MAATHAI: Thank you so much for having me.
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