Trailblazing Nobel Laureate on Environment, World Peace In 2004, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai talks about her memoir, Unbowed, and why she believes protecting the environment has everything to do with world peace.
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Trailblazing Nobel Laureate on Environment, World Peace

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Trailblazing Nobel Laureate on Environment, World Peace

Trailblazing Nobel Laureate on Environment, World Peace

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I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead: programming that looks like America. TV One's president talks about diversity and his network's appeal to African-Americans. Plus, kicks for Native Americans - the latest in athletic footwear. That's next.

But first, Wangari Maathai grew up in a small village in the highlands of western Kenya. In 2004, she became the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace prize.

Her idea sounds so simple - encourage women to plant trees. But that simple movement has led to a worldwide conversation about sustainable development, democracy and human rights.

Now, Wangari Maathai has taken a place among the world's foremost environmentalists. She's in Washington, D.C. on a tour for her memoir. "Unbowed." It's now out in paperback. We caught up with her at her hotel in Washington.


Dr. WANGARI MAATHAI (Environmentalist; Nobel Peace Prize Winner; Author, "Unbowed"): Thank you very much.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about these labels that we use. You won the prize for environmentalism. But is that how you see yourself as an environmentalist, or is there another term that you like?

Dr. MAATHAI: There are several issues that were involved. There was the issue of human rights, the issue of the rule of law, the issue of peace, and, of course, the issue of how we manage natural resources. So I guess it can go, but there are many issues that are covered when we say that it is the environment that was honored by the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

MARTIN: I think some people might wonder, though, how the environment and care for the environment is connected to peace.

Dr. MAATHAI: When you think of all the conflicts we have - whether those conflicts are local, whether they are regional or global - these conflicts are often over the management, the distribution of resources. If these resources are very valuable, if these resources are scarce, if these resources are degraded, there is going to be competition. And it is over that competition that we get conflict.

And that is why the Norwegian Nobel Committee thought that it is - the time has come for us to realize that to work for peace, we need to manage our resources in a responsible way, in an accountable way so that people - so people don't feel like they're marginalized. So people don't feel like they exploited. And the only way we can do that is if we govern ourselves in a political and economic system that respects the human rights, that embraces minorities, because if we do that, then we are more likely to preempt the many reasons why people fight.

MARTIN: In this country, one does not often see people of color involved in the environmental movement. It is sometimes the case that people of color feel that environmentalists are at odds with their concerns, that they do not understand the fact that - they see the environmentalism as a movement for those who already have had plenty, and that now they're telling other people that they should have less. Do you have a message for people, minorities and people who are less affluent in developing countries about why environmentalism means something to them?

Dr. MAATHAI: I think the reason why environmentalism was associated with elitism is because environmental degradation was partly due to industrial and economic development. And as - especially the industrialized countries of the West progressed and accumulated a lot of wealth, the idea of the damage that was been to their - to the environment was never considered. And so we associated the development, progress, creation of wealth with those who were not marginalized.

And in this country - in a country like the United States of America, of course, the black people would be the ones who would see themselves as being the ones who are deprived. And so they would think that it is the elites, the well off, the whites, who are concerned about the environment.

MARTIN: And yet, so much of the environmental movement in much of the developed world involves technological innovations, which are quite expensive. I mean, more energy-efficient appliances cost more than the ones that are not - at least, initially. More energy efficient cars cost more than others - at least, initially. How do you bridge that gap?

Dr. MAATHAI: In our part of the world, for example, the poor people can also say that they don't have the time to worry about trees. They should cut the trees so that they can get charcoal, because they cannot afford electricity. But the truth of the matter is there will be much more heat by the environmental degradation or global warming when it comes than the rich, because they don't have the technology. They don't have the money. They are not - they don't have many options. The rich people have options. The poor people don't have options.

The poor people should be assisted by the state. And that is why we say that adapting and adopting new techniques and new ways of lifestyle really is an investment governments have to make a choice about. Because if you don't help your citizens to adapt, you are nevertheless going to deal with the problems of rising seas and melting snow and drying up rivers and all that.

MARTIN: But these are all long-term outcomes. And often, when people feel that they're fighting for their survival, they don't feel that they have the luxury of considering the long view. Do you find that to be the case?

Dr. MAATHAI: Yes. Quite often, that's the way people feel. They feel that they don't have time. And we also say that poor people will sometimes cut their last tree to cook their last meal. The question for the poor people to ask themselves is do they really want to put themselves in that situation, or would they rather do whatever it takes to make sure that they don't reach that stage?

All scientists are saying that although the global warming is going to impact the entire globe, it is going to be more adverse in within the tropics, partly because they say Africa is very vulnerable because she has two expanding deserts - the Sahara and the Kalahari. And the majority of people are cushioned between those two deserts. And if therefore, we are not careful and we continue to destroy the vegetation, to destroy the forests, especially the huge Congo forest in between, when the climate changes heat, Africa will suffer most. Yet, Africa is the least contributor to greenhouse gases that are causing global warming.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm talking to Dr. Wangari Maathai. She's in Washington, D.C, on a tour for her memoir, "Unbowed."

One of the things that I learned from your memoir was that you're not just the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize and the first environmentalist. You're also the first East African woman to earn a doctorate. And you did this at a time when many women were not given access to even primary education.

Dr. MAATHAI: Yeah. Well, I hope that any young person, and especially any girl, take advantage of the opportunity when it comes, because when you read the book, you see that - in the other times, I was not the one who is making those decisions. It was my parents. And I particularly wanted to draw attention to parents to say that it is the parents. It is the adults who are responsible for making decisions for their children, and that if you don't do that, then, of course, you are condemning your child to a life of misery. I am what I am because my parents made the right decisions for me when I couldn't make those decisions.

The other was that I took advantage of the opportunities that came my way. And one of the advantages was coming to the United States of America. I was a very young girl, just about 20 years, and I could have said I'm too young to make -to leave my family. I could have said I am a girl, and I can't go that far away from my family. And I came to the United States of America, and that college education really changed my life. I did not have a blueprint, that indeed what I was doing is just taking advantage of the few opportunities that came my way.

MARTIN: But do you ever feel, though, that your education creates a gulf, a distance between the people who you most wish to listen to you?

Dr. MAATHAI: Well, I have never been too educated to understand, because I tell people I can always go back to my roots. And when you read the book, you see that I grew up in the countryside. When I was going to school, I was bare feet, and I didn't have too many dresses in my closet. And so these things are not absolutely important to make you somebody. What is important is to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way.

MARTIN: You go out of your way in the memoir to talk about the fact that you are not too good to repair the walls of your mother's hut…


MARTIN: …with dung.


MARTIN: And I just wondered why you made a point of telling these stories.

Dr. MAATHAI: I wanted to tell these stories because I think that quite often, those of us who come from very humble backgrounds can sometimes almost pretend that you didn't go through that. For me it was important to share that experience, because it's very easy for people now to see the Nobel Peace Prize and to see the Ph.D. and to see all the good things that are now with me and forget where I came from.

It is a privilege and it - sometimes it is because others have sacrificed themselves to show us the way, to support us along the way, but we were also willing to walk with them. And that, to me, is very, very important, especially to our people, many of whom are still poor. Many girls are still not going to school, and so I want them to know that they can get here and even go beyond. But where they are coming from must not be an obstacle they can overcome.

MARTIN: I also learned from your memoir that you, like other winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, have sometimes been attacked, imprisoned by authorities. But I learned that the first time you were imprisoned had nothing to do with politics, at least not on the surface. The first time you were sent to jail was because you questioned a judge's decision in your divorce, that in its essence, the decision was biased against you from the beginning, in part because - or I don't know whether it's because you're an educated woman or because you're a woman period.

Dr. MAATHAI: Being an educated woman was a challenge to the status quo at that time. I was being put in my place, that I was being told that I should know where I belong as a woman.

MARTIN: Your husband at the time was a member of parliament.


MARTIN: And you described how you'd been supportive of him.


MARTIN: Even though you had your own career.

Dr. MAATHAI: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: That must've been very painful for you.

Dr. MAATHAI: Yeah, it was painful, because I knew that I wasn't really being punished for anything that I had done wrong, but rather I was being put in a place where, as a woman, I was being reminded that it doesn't matter how much education you may have, you are still a woman, and you belong a certain place, and that's where we want to make sure that both and others who have the audacity like you know where your place is.

Unfortunately for them, that is exactly what gave me the energy to fight that, because I thought that it was unfair, it was unjust, and I needed to let women know that yes, being educated was okay.

MARTIN: Do you still feel that there are efforts to put you in your place?

Dr. MAATHAI: No. I think, me, personally, I think I have passed that valley. There are many - there's too many women who probably find themselves in that position. But at this time, the society has changed a lot. When you overcome those prejudices, you do it not only for yourself, but for many others.

MARTIN: But you have paid a personal price for your activism, and at times, I wonder whether you feel the price has been too high. You were imprisoned for challenging the judge. You have been publicly beaten along with other women, activists in situations that are very well documented, hospitalized a number of times.

Dr. MAATHAI: Yeah. Yeah. I think that that is sometimes the price of anyone who challenges the status quo and who is trying to break grounds. I personally have been very lucky because I haven't suffered the way some people suffer for what they believe in, for what they live for. Some people have lost their lives.

There are many people that I was working with, with whom we were struggling who didn't make it. They went to jail, they died in jail, and some came out of jail completely broken and unable to continue.

So I think it is also important for people to realize that anytime you want to stand up for anything, there will always be people who want to bring you down. And you have to make a choice. And if you decide to challenge, there is always a price to pay.

MARTIN: How has your life changed since the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to you in 2004?

Dr. MAATHAI: For one, there has been a lot of interest in this issue of environment and the linkage it has with the democracy and peace, and so I have found myself giving a lot of lectures all over the world. I have therefore been traveling extensively since that time.

And, of course, our work in the Green Belt Movement has just exploded. So many people want to share their experience. So many people want to learn from us, and sometimes we just feel overwhelmed. We have received a lot of support, and we are very, very grateful for that support.

The prize comes with a lot of prestige, and it comes with a lot of honor. But it also comes with a very heavy responsibility to carry the message.

MARTIN: As we mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, it started with planting trees - with women planting trees. What is the next step for the Green Belt Movement?

Dr. MAATHAI: Well we have several programs on the agenda. One of them is getting to work very closely with people who are concerned about climate change. And in particular, we are concerned about protecting forests. And I am currently the Goodwill Ambassador for the Congo forest ecosystem, and working with the - especially G8 countries to help these governments protect these forests - not only for Africa, but also for the world, and especially with respect to climate change.

Then, of course, you know we have this campaign at the moment to plant one billion trees this year. And I'm asking everybody to plant at least 10 trees to take care of the carbon dioxide.

MARTIN: Do you have a favorite tree?

Dr. MAATHAI: The fig tree, which I described in the book. Partly because it was a sacred tree to my people, and I know it plays a very important role of holding the soil together.

MARTIN: You mean - by that, you mean the Kikuyu?

Dr. MAATHAI: The Kikuyu community, yeah. For the Kikuyu community, the elders offered sacrifices to their god under that fig tree. And so that fig tree was never cut. It was never used. It was allowed to be, until it - on its own -shed off, which was usually several hundred years. So it was a very important tree, and it contributed to the stabilization of the land.

MARTIN: How will you know when you have succeeded and then you can stop and take a rest sitting under your trees?

Dr. MAATHAI: Maybe in the next 20 years, the world will have a very clear understanding on the need to protect our environment. So that in time, we can ensure our survival.

MARTIN: Dr. Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner, author of the memoir, "Unbowed." She joined us in her hotel room in Washington, as she is traveling the country, talking about the Green Belt Movement. Dr. Maathai, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Dr. MAATHAI: Thank you very much. It's my privilege.

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