Key Speeches & Articles

Inaugural World Food Law Distinguished Lecture

By Wangari Maathai
Howard University, Washington, DC
May 10, 2005

Wangari Maathai signing books after speaking in the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York City, March 8, 2005. Photo by Juliana Thomas.These remarks were given by Professor Maathai at the World Food Law Lunch in the Cosmos Club, Washington, DC.

Thank you very much. Professor Marsha Echols, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, it is a unique pleasure and privilege and indeed honour to be here and to be received so warmly by you here in Washington, DC.

I think that one of the most humbling experiences I have is that when you do these things you don’t do them thinking that other people are noticing and you don’t do them so that one day you may be a Nobel Peace Prize winner. So it is always very humbling to know that there were people who were watching and there were people who were appreciative of what we were doing. But we all now acknowledge that what the Norwegian Nobel Committee did on the day they decided that they wanted to focus on the environment for the very first time was both historic and visionary. It was a way of urging us to make a mind-shift in the way we think about security, in the way we think about peace, and to understand that you cannot achieve peace without looking at the environment.

Those of us who have been working on peace, democratisation, environment movements, in women’s movements, we always felt that indeed these issues are related, but nobody could have said it so dramatically and with so much persuasion as the Norwegian Nobel Committee. As I was trying to explain from my own perspective how these issues are related, I was inspired by a metaphor that I have been using. The metaphor is an African, traditional stool with three legs. A traditional African stool is actually made from one log and then three legs are chiseled out and a seat is also chiseled out in the middle so that when you sit, you sit on this basin, which rests on three legs.

I compare the three legs to the three pillars that the Norwegian Nobel Committee identified. One leg is that of peace. The other is that of democratic space, where rights are respected—women’s rights, human rights, environmental rights, children’s rights, where there is space for everybody, where minorities and the marginalised can find space. The third leg is the environment, that needs to be managed sustainably, equitably, and in a transparent way, the resources of which also need to be shared equitably.

That word “equitably” is very important in the management of those resources. If you look at many of the conflicts we have in the world, they are often due to the fact that we do manage our resources but we do not share them equitably. Or we manage our resources so poorly that they become degraded, depleted and so we start fighting over the little that is left. That happens at the national level, at the regional level, or even at the global level. So these three pillars, the pillar of peace, the pillar of the environment, and the pillar of democratic space, are extremely important for any state that intends to be stable. For when a state rests on these three pillars then the basin of the seat becomes the space, the environment, the milieu in which we can do development. Here we can meet as donors, as states, as financiers. We feel secure, we feel safe, because we are resting safely on those three pillars.

In many regions, not least my own, many countries are resting on two legs, some are resting on one leg, and some have no legs at all. We know how desperate the situation can be when the basin is literally on the ground. No development can take place. That to me is the main message that this Prize has brought to the world. To urge us as human society to rethink how we develop and to understand that we cannot force development, we cannot keep that basin up, if those three legs are not stable, and that we have to invest in those three legs. We have to invest in the environment. We have to invest in cultures of peace, continuously and deliberately. We have to invest in cultures of democratisation, of democratic space. I prefer to call it democratic space because if I say democracy some people might feel like that’s not exactly what they want to describe. But democratic space gives us a space to be ourselves, a space to be creative, a space to be self-respecting, a space to feel good about ourselves, a space to dream, and a space to aspire. We can do all that if the three pillars are safe.

That is true whether it’s a small country like Kenya or a big country like the United States of America. This is the message that we have been challenged to embrace, to think about. And for development agencies this is a real challenge, because many development agencies think that what government needs is money, that if you can give them as much money as possible they will develop. Well, for the last forty years or so in Africa we have seen that pouring money there doesn’t help. We need to strengthen those three pillars. Where you see a stable state and a state where people are appreciated, governments are investing in people rather than in weapons, they are investing in education, quality education, giving people the skills and the technology they need in order to exploit the resources that are within their borders, that’s a state that feels stable, that doesn’t feel threatened. Then it is able and willing to invest in its people.

Otherwise, you have just a small group of people trying to balance themselves in that basin, and because the legs are either not there or they are wobbly, no development can take place.

Today I was going to talk about food, essentially, and development and peace. I thought that if I started with that vision of the African traditional stool you would understand that you cannot have security in food if you do not have that pillar of the environment. I want to give you an example from Kenya. I want to show you how you can be very food insecure because you are interfering with a mountain.

Those of you who know Kenya know that we have five mountains, but I’ll talk about the two mountains on the equator: Mount Kenya and the Aberdares. These two mountains, their tributaries create the largest river in Kenya. Along this river are millions of people and national parks, all the way to the very precious marine national park at the coast. The millions of people who live along the valley of this river enjoy farming and pastoralism, and of course in the national parks we have wildlife.

The people who live upstream are largely farmers, and they grow coffee and tea. Coffee and tea are some of the most basic and most important economic industries in the country. Tea, coffee and tourism are the main powerhouses of the economy in the country. Now, those three—tea, coffee, and tourism—depend on rainfall and water coming from those mountains. If you do not have enough water coming down the streams, you will not be able to supply agriculture, especially the irrigation schemes, along that river. And there are literally thousands of people who depend on that.

One thing that we have been doing with our mountains for many years, going on for about sixty years, is we decided to go to the high mountains and clear cut these natural forests and replace them with commercial plantations of trees we brought from Australia and the Northern Hemisphere. From Australia we brought the eucalyptus—I’m saying “we” but it’s really the British—and from the North, we brought the pine. These are trees that are used to temperate zones, both in the South and the Northern Hemisphere. They did very well because Kenya has highlands; Mount Kenya alone is 17,000 feet above sea level. So these trees do very well. Also they were growing on what was then virgin soil.

We literally sacrificed the natural forests in order to expand these plantations. And sixty years down the road we are beginning to see the negative impact of those plantations. For one, we have lost a lot of biodiversity, because these trees do not tolerate local biodiversity. They kill everything except themselves. The other thing that has happened is that once you remove the natural forest, you are left with a forest that does not give you the same services as the natural forest. For example, the tree plantations do not retain rain water and encourage the water to go into the underground reservoirs. Most of the most water runs off downstream and causes massive soil erosion and flooding and eventually ends up in the lakes and seas.

With it, the water carries the topsoil that the farmer needs to produce food. When you interfere too much with the natural system, you will also interfere with the rainfall patterns, because the nature of the forest controls the climate and controls the rainfall patterns. So when you change the ecology of the forest you also interfere with the rain pattern. We’re now experiencing either no rain or, when the rains come, they come like a bucket from heaven has been opened and it pours and causes massive soil erosion. The cash crops, especially tea, do not like heavy rain. Tea prefers soft, drizzling rain. So with the change in the way the rain falls, you lose the crop yield.

How can you then have food security in a country like that, where the farmers depend on rainfall or on water from irrigation? It is impossible, and indeed at the beginning of last month the Minister for Agriculture said that about three million people in Kenya would need food aid because the rainfall had declined so badly that farmers would not have adequate yield.

Of course, the immediate response to the crisis is the rainfall has not come. “The rains did not come.” But very few of us ask, “Why didn’t the rains come?” That’s the challenge. We need to ask ourselves, and that’s why we’re being challenged to think holistically. For if we only want the rains to come but don’t want to understand why rains may not come, then of course we’re going to fail. I could have told the Minister that because of the damage that we have done to the mountains, to the five forested mountains in Kenya, because of the illegal logging that has been going on for years, charcoal burning that has been going on for years, because of the commercial plantations that have been expanded in the mountains and allowing literally thousands of people to go into the forests and cultivate in order to support this commercial plantation of timber, rainfall patterns sooner or later would be affected.

Now some people say it is climate change and they say, “Well, you know, even on Mount Kenya the glaciers are receding.” That’s also quite possible. It’s possible that it is part of climate change. But climate change does not happen at a global level at once. Climate change starts at a local level. It is impacted by what we have done on these two mountains. Multiply that several million times, because it is happening in Kenya, it is happening in Africa, it is happening in Europe, it’s happening elsewhere. And sooner or later, all these multiplied several million times create a climate that in certain areas will become extremely harsh, especially for people who don’t have alternatives, such as the people in our region.

In trying to solve the problem, the Minister will probably say, “We must go out and do two things: one, we must buy food from those who have it, or we must seek food aid in the world.” I’m glad that United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is represented here, because they are the ones who are usually giving us food aid. That’s a short-term solution.

The long-term solution is for us to go back to the basics. Go back to the basics and listen to what the Norwegian Nobel Committee said: The environment is an intricate way joined, is related, is intertwined, in our lives on an everyday basis. It is not something we think about or talk about or learn about sometimes. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat: everything we do has to do with the environment. We need to take this concept and make it holistic, so that we can think in a holistic manner, and learn to protect the base on which everything else depends. Learn that if we destroy the mountain, the waters, when they take the soil, they take away the soil in which the farmer plants his seed.

If you ask an ordinary Kenyan woman why the rains do not come, the farmer will probably say, “God has not yet brought the rain, and we must pray so that God brings us the rain.” In recent years I have seen the need to talk to the religion leaders and tell them that it is very important for them to see the connection between the book of Genesis and what is happening to the environment, and to begin to tell the faithful that they must take care of the Garden of Eden that God created in the book of Genesis, and to encourage them not to wait for God to bring rain, because the rains will come anyway.

But if the rains don’t come, it has nothing to do with God. It has everything to do with the way they are managing their environment. So that that faithful [person], whether he can read the Bible or not, or maybe at best can only read the Bible in his own language, is motivated to go out, dig a hole, and plant a tree. Or, is motivated to go and create a terrace, or a trench, so that the next time the rains come, they do not take away his topsoil, so that when he plants a seed it will germinate because there is water in the ground and the fertile topsoil has not been carried away.

And he will be motivated to support those terraces with trees, with vegetation. As we [the Green Belt Movement] are doing now, [perhaps] he is willing to even go further and plant trees on public land, including going to the forest and planting trees in the forest.

If the farmer does that, then those of us who are in a more responsible position can make sure that what he plants, if he’s going to export, he will get fair trade. He’ll get a fair price. Most of these farmers that I’m talking about grow tea and coffee. But when they grow this tea and coffee and they send it to the international market, there are some rules of the game—I don’t know whether the food law [programme] looks at that—there are some rules of the game that do not allow this farmer to get enough for his labor. He gets very little from the international market, and he has no control over that. When he needs inputs for his coffee and tea he has to buy [them] at a price that has been set by somebody else, and he has no control over that. Somehow there is a law that does not create justice for this farmer, and as a result, because he doesn’t get enough for his labor, he continues to scrape, to scratch this land and get very little out of it. So we call him poor, and we begin to say that it is partly because of his poverty that the environment is being degraded.

Well, it is not true. The farmer is doing his best. He needs to be assisted to learn that he has to protect his environment. But those of us at this level also need to protect his interests. So when he brings his produce to the market he gets a fair price. That is why we are saying that perhaps what many of these poor countries need so that they may protect the environment is fair trade, support for aid so that they can support that farmer, and they can protect that forest, and they can encourage the rehabilitation of these forests and these mountains so that the rivers can continue to flow and the rains will come back.

The only way we can do that is if we have governments that operate in a free, democratic space, so that they can encourage their people, and governments that are promoting cultures of peace, so that people can find a peaceful environment in which to do these activities.

That is the message that I’m trying to share with you. I believe that’s the message the Norwegian Nobel Committee was delivering to the world. It is the challenge that we have been given, so that we can rethink what security and peace really mean for us, and to understand that at no time, either at the national level or at the regional level, can we have peace if we do not think holistically—think from the top to the bottom and as wide as we can.

If we do so, then we are prepared to capture that image of the traditional African stool with its three legs: democracy, peace, and sustainable management of our resources. Then we can have a peaceful, secure base upon which development can take place.

Thank you very much.