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Nobel Laureate: Grow trees, not war

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, told a Lehigh audience Thursday evening that learning to share the earth’s resources is one of the keys to avoiding future wars.

Maathai was the honored guest for the College of Education’s 2007 Distinguished Lecture Series, delivering a public address at Zoellner Arts Center Thursday evening and meeting earlier in the day with local high school students during a question-and-answer session organized by Lehigh students.

Maathai, a leading international advocate for women’s rights and environmental protection, was recognized with the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Greenbelt Movement. The grassroots movement promotes environmental responsibility as a way to alleviate poverty and war. During her lecture and the following question-and-answer session, Maathai described how these ideas are connected.

“We live on a planet where resources are limited,” Maathai said. “In order for us to live in peace with each other, we need to learn to manage our resources responsibly and accountably. We need to learn to share these resources more equitably so as to preempt many of the reasons why people fight, one of which is over resources.”

"This is where I should be"

Maathai discovered the relationship between peace, human health, and the environment in the 1970s at a forum that brought women from across Africa to discuss different struggles they faced as a result of their gender. At that forum, Maathai—a professor at the University of Nairobi who, in 1971, became the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctoral degree—spoke against inconsistencies in the terms of services given to male professors over female professors.

But she soon forgot her own complaints when she listened to the other women speak. These women lacked even the most basic necessities: clean drinking water, food, income, and firewood.

At the time, Maathai said, she thought, “This is where I should be. These are the people I should really be working with. What I was thinking about is nothing compared to the basic, life-threatening needs these women were talking about.”

Maathai said she realized that the “life-threatening needs” were connected with the land and its resources, and she concluded that something needed be done to restore the land. She told the women, “I think we should plant trees.”

Maathai spoke to students at the Mountaintop Campus during the afternoon.

With this suggestion, the Greenbelt Movement began. Based in Kenya, the international movement spread to other countries and has planted more than 40 million trees across Africa.

Through planting trees, the Greenbelt Movement seeks to improve the lives of people across Africa by empowering women and girls by teaching them how to care for the trees and for themselves. Over time, the Greenbelt Movement has adopted many roles and now advocates for a wide range of causes including civil, democratic, environmental, and human rights.

“[The Greenbelt Movement] reminds me of the story of the four blind men and the elephant. It can be anything to anybody. If you are looking for a human rights organization, the Greenbelt Movement is a human rights organization. If you are fighting for women’s rights, you will find it there. If you are fighting for children’s rights, if you are fighting for environmental rights, if you are fighting for animal rights, if you are even fighting for the rights of species, you will find a place to fight within the Greenbelt Movement.”

These are big fights, but Maathai believes that they can be won if each person focuses on the little things they can do, which she calls the “do-ables.” Do-ables include writing on both sides of paper, reducing waste, and being involved in service.

“One of the things that human beings find most nourishing is when you care beyond yourself,” she said. “When you go beyond yourself, that’s when you become truly human.”

Sally A. White, dean of the College of Education, believes Maathai’s vision for social equality and the environment will be celebrated for generations to come. According to White, Maathai is giving a voice to the seventy-three million girls quietly living in poverty and destitution in the world today.

Wangari recounted how she founded the Greenbelt Movement.

“These women and young girls live now—and will continue to live—in desperate poverty and poor health,” she said. “Dr. Wangari Maathai understands this problem perhaps better than anybody else. She’s a leading authority on poverty and the environment and has tirelessly worked on behalf the world’s poor to make sure they have hope, that their concerns don’t go unheard.”

Maathia's afternoon session with high school students from around the Lehigh Valley capped a morning-long environmental simulation activity. Created by students in Lehigh's Global Citizenship program, the simulation required participants to work together to address a variety of real-life issues currently plaguing Africa. Political instability, environmental crises, and women's rights were just a few of the topics open for discussion.

Lehigh students representing the College of Education, Global Citizenship, the Women's Studies program, and the Environmental Initiative also participated in the day's activities. It was the first educational outreach program hosted by the College of Education in conjunction with its annual Distinguished Lecture Series.

--Becky Straw

Photos by Jack Lerch

Posted on Monday, February 05, 2007

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