Trees for Peace

by Jane Fritz

When she first heard that she had won the Nobel Peace Prize, she went out and planted a tree. Then, during her Nobel acceptance speech last December, she invited people everywhere to celebrate with her by planting trees wherever they live.

Dr. Wangari Maathai, an environmental activist in Kenya and leader of the National Council of Women, won the 2004 Nobel for her steadfast leadership, working under a hostile regime, in organizing rural women to counter Kenya's deforestation problem by planting trees. She is the first African woman to win the coveted award.

"Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system," says Maathai. "We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process healour own."

Sandpoint resident Ed Bittner, whose own advocacy of the environment dates back to the 1960s, met Dr. Maathai in the 1980s while doing forestry work in Kenya.

Back in the late 1960s, Bittner worked for the U.S. State Department as an international development economist. He witnessed worldwide environmental devastation related directly to economic development. Eventually, he was appointed in 1985 as U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), whose global headquarters are located in Nairobi.

At the time, Kenya was an ecological fiasco. Extensive tea and coffee plantations were leading to vast deforestation while the runoff from sugar plantations was polluting Lake Victoria. Bittner developed anti-pollution programs and saw that spending by the United States and other countries on UNEP programs was done with integrity.

The international cooperation among the environmental representatives from various countries was impressive, he says. The 140 international scientists working for UNEP at the time were the ones who first discovered evidence of global warming and brought the problem to the world's attention. Chernobyl happened during his watch; acid rain was yet another diplomatic issue.

Bittner believes that Matthai's Nobel Peace Prize affirms what decades of working in international affairs taught him and what he believes is presently lost on Bush administration officials.

"Environmental development is good economics," Bittner says. "There are many jobs created by improving the environment. The two are not mutually exclusive; they are complementary." It is also the first time the Nobel committee has broadened its definition by linking the environment with democracy and peace.

After studying biology in the United States and inspired by the U.S. civil rights movement, Maathai returned to Kenya and became the first woman in eastern Africa to earn a doctoral degree. Then she focused her energies on the poverty that was a direct result of deforestation. The lack of firewood, clean drinking water, durable housing material, and adequate food is why she launched the Green Belt Movement in 1977 to organize rural and poor women in Africa to plant and nurture the growth of millions of trees.

The reforestation project served a dual purpose: It helped provide needed income for poor women (tree planters earned four cents for each surviving sapling), while at the same time replenishing Kenya's forest reserves. In nearly 30 years, some 30 million trees have been planted across Africa. Her efforts gave hope and a sense of self-determination to an entire generation of African women.

In rural Kenya, the women do everything, says Bittner. "They build the house and farm the land while the men try to find work in urban areas. The women hold the country together," he says. Leading Kenya's women gave Maathai tremendous political clout. Over the years, nonetheless, she endured personal injury and several arrests and jailings by the oppressive dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi. In 2002, however, her movement successfully challenged Moi's plans to build a skyscraper next to a park in downtown Nairobi. Her risky stand was a turning point in Kenya as Moi's government soon gave way to democratic elections.

Today, as Kenya's Deputy Minister of Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife, Maathai intends to reinvigorate the Green Belt Movement with her $1.3 million prize.

Bittner remembers Maathai as a woman of power and of the people. He says she unified the women's movement in Kenya by combining women's liberation goals with her desire to end deforestation.

Bittner remembers entertaining Maathai in his Nairobi home several times. "She was also a down-to-earth person and always accessible," he says.

Though Maathai labors in a different field, says Bittner, "I would put her right up there with Mother Teresa. She's a powerhouse."

Publication date: 06/02/05