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‘Get ready for new African LEADERS’


angari Muta Maathai, the iconic Kenyan environmentalist –– who became the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2004 –– speaks in simple, direct sentences that brim with an inner fire and conviction that comes from long years of struggle. The results are there for all to see: The Green Belt Movement she founded in the mid-1970s has enriched the earth with 31 million trees. Maathai is an elected member of the Kenyan Parliament and also served as Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources between January 2003 and November 2005. A pioneering academic and a leading human rights campaigner, she became “a source of inspiration for everyone in Africa fighting for sustainable development, democracy and peace”, in the words of the Nobel Committee that recognised her outstanding work three years back. India has honoured the 67-yearold environmentalist with the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding. The award was presented to Maathai by President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam at an elegant ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan (the presidential palace in New Delhi) in March that was attended by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his senior Cabinet ministers. “Her mission has to spread to all parts of the planet. The award is in recognition of her persistent and courageous struggle for democracy, human rights and environmental conservation,” President Kalam said. In this conversation with Manish Chand, Maathai speaks about her unquenchable passion for a clean environment, the emerging breed of new leaders in Africa, her impression of India and what India and Africa can do together to create a more equitable, clean and harmonious world. Excerpts from the interview:


Q. Your passion for the environment and your lifelong commitment to the green cause has earned accolades all over the world. How did it all start? A. I grew up in the Kenyan countryside. That experience in the countryside when the environment was pristine has stayed with me since then. In those days, there were no cash crops, no coffee, no tea. I grew up seeing shorgum, palm trees, sweet potatoes –– which were all very economical food crops. The rivers were so clean that we could drink water straight from them. There were no agro-chemicals. That’s the background I knew as a child and that’s what influenced me a lot. Later on, I saw the land degrading. We could no longer drink water straight from the rivers. The rivers were full of silt because forests upstream were cleared. That’s the time I thought I must do something about it. If we really understand the role environment plays in our life and environmental education becomes part of school curricula, then a lot of people would be concerned about the environment and would encourage others to do something about it. Q. How do you see the impact of globalisation on the environment? A. To a very large extent, globalisation is a threat to the environment in countries that are poor and underdeveloped. Underdeveloped, poor countries are looking to developed countries and corporations to get them out of poverty. It’s very easy for these corporations to exploit the resources and not to share it with the poor locals. There should be a code of ethics to ensure that they do business on the basis of justice and fairplay. Unless you can appreciate that the planet is very small and resources limited, globalisation will do a lot of damage to poor and developing countries. Q. You have been in politics for long and have often criticised corruption in governance. What do you think of the quality of leadership in Africa? Do you see a new breed of leadership emerging in Africa? A. Now, we are seeing a new breed of leadership, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A lot of wars fought in Africa were proxy wars that were waged by superpowers

February-April 2007


February 2007-April 2007