A Nobel winner who represents a truly green peace | OPINION: Melinda Ruley | Indy Week
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A Nobel winner who represents a truly green peace 

Early this month the Nobel Committee announced that Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai had won the prestigious Peace Prize, beating out, among others, weapons inspector Hans Blix and U.N. nuclear watchdog Mohamed ElBaradei. Maathai, a 64-year-old U.S.-educated biologist and assistant environment minister for Kenya, has made a name for herself promoting democracy and the rights of African women. But she is best known as an outspoken environmentalist who drew attention to the link between ecology, justice and social unrest. In 1977, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots response to the deforestation taking place in Kenya and elsewhere on the African continent. Educating village women on the connection between the firewood they gathered and the disappearing forests, Maathai began a massive re-forestation campaign. It was, for mid-20th-century Africa, a radical idea: rural African women organizing to plant trees. And yet, against cultural and political odds, Maathai convinced an army of these women that healthy forests were crucial to the future of their families and villages. By the turn of the century they had planted nearly 30 million trees.

For her efforts, Maathai was threatened, arrested and ridiculed. Former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi called her a "mad woman" for her persistent advocacy of the environment, democracy and human rights--and, presumably, for her successful opposition to Moi's plans to build a six-story statue of himself in urban Nairobi's only green space.

One can only speculate on Moi's reaction to the Nobel Committee's decision, but if he has been silent, others have not. In Norway, where citizens and politicians take a possessive interest in the Nobel awards, it took only hours for the grumbling over Maathai's award to begin. The critics, which include a former deputy foreign minister, Oslo's Peace Research Institute and the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, wondered how, with the war in Iraq, the specter of nuclear proliferation, daily accounts of terrorist activity and political fires flaming in so many corners of the world, the committee could in good conscience award its peace prize to an environmentalist.

"It is odd that the committee has completely overlooked the unrest that the world is living with daily and given the prize to an environmental activist," said the leader of Norway's opposition far-right Progress Party. "It's fine to fight for human rights and the environment, but this is the Nobel Peace Prize."

I t's not the first time the Nobel Committee has been accused of subverting the will of its benefactor, Alfred Nobel, and of gutting the intent of the peace prize. There was plenty of grousing when Mother Teresa won, and Elie Wiesel and the Dalai Lama. This year's decision, though, is especially courageous and insightful. After all, committee members had their pick of front-line crusaders, good people working in the global arena against guns and missiles, suicide bombers and warlords and hidden bunkers with their rows of deadly vials. After all, we are three years into the War on Terror, up to our necks in deadly insurgencies, exhausted by body counts, run ragged with fear. After all, Wangari Maathai plants trees.

Evidently, the Nobel Committee was determined to do something people rarely do anymore--acknowledge the complexity of human struggle, look for the depth level, the shifting plates beneath the crumbling city. They were bowing to a truth that is too big, too scary and too inexpedient for most of us to bother with.

The connection between peace and the health of the environment is so obvious that only a Le Fanuan monkey-in-the-eye can block the truth of it. Unfortunately, there have been no shortages of monkeys. Every noble and ignoble step in the march of civilization has been taken with the supposition that it's all out there for our use and abuse. From Adam's "dominion" to the seizing of the oil ministry in Baghdad by U.S. troops, we humans have long held tight to our entitlement complex. And to the conviction (not without its factual bases) that whoever has more survives, prospers, prevails, wins. It is more human than opposable thumbs. You can see it in 2-year-olds coming to blows over a Zweiback or a corner of the sandbox. You see it in an administration that turns its back on the Kyoto Accord in order to protect industry profits, that weakens domestic environmental laws and regulations in deference to "resource potential."

None of this is to deny certain biological realities, however brutal, or to fault 6,000 years of civilization for failing to recycle. But the fact is, whatever advantages were once gained by exploiting our resources have been decidedly eclipsed by the prospect of what will happen if we don't stop. And, as Maathai argues, the consequences of environmental disasters reach far beyond the mudslides and extinction figures. On the once-fertile island nation of Haiti, three percent of the original forest remains and only 11 percent of the land is still arable--all of which fans the flames of unrest and violence suffered by Haitians. In the Middle East, water shortages have already sparked bloody disputes between Arabs and Israelis and continue to threaten the peace between neighboring countries. In Central America, brutal dictatorships have found U.S. support as part of our country's attempt to see that land distribution--timber, mineral rights--is "managed" to our advantage. And every day, people whose livelihoods have been destroyed by environmental damage are forced to compete (often violently) for resources--or, worse, find themselves susceptible to insurgencies that prey on the poor and dispossessed.

We see this, but what can we really do about it? It seems so hopeless: How can we stop over-fishing the world's oceans when we can't get it together to carpool? How can we fight global warming when we lack the political will to stop our county commissioners from pandering to developers? Let's have a show of hands: Who among us is up for another one of those "paradigm shifts," in which the post-modern world is called on to let go of one more sacrament, throw another totem into the flames? Because it won't be as easy as using eco-friendly detergent. "We've acquired a lot of 'feel-good' behaviors with regard to the environment," I once heard an ecologist say. "But what we need is on the order of challenging Ptolemy all over again, and that requires some discomfort."

How do we wrap our minds around so huge a change? And who is willing, like Galileo, to lay his head on the block?

S everal years ago, while teaching at Central Prison in Raleigh, I met a Kenyan woman who had worked with Maathai's Green Belt Movement. Or, rather, her mother had worked with the group and this woman, Margaret, had tagged along as a young girl. She'd written a story about going out with her mother to plant trees in farmland near their village, and she gave me the story to read. I remember thinking how beautiful her English was, somehow tea-time proper and at the same time languid and open as the savannah.

In Margaret's story, her mother's group has finished its morning's work when they are confronted by a local official. The man herds them into a small room in a nearby village, where they are held for several hours, kept company by their worry and a swarm of flies. When they are finally released and safe at home, a young girl--presumably Margaret's character--tells her mother she'll never go on such a mission again. The mother marches her daughter out into the field and stands her next to a sapling the same height as the girl. "Without this," the mother says, fingering a branch, "there is no this," and she touches the girl's head.

Margaret had never met Maathai, but she credits the activist with changing her mother's life and, consequently, making it possible for Margaret to leave her hometown and venture into the world. She talked about how Maathai had been repeatedly threatened and even beaten, yet never backed down from her conviction that every element of human sustenance, from firewood to political peace, rests on the health of the planet.

The day Maathai found out she'd won the Nobel Peace Prize, she planted a Nandi flame tree in her hometown of Nyeri. It was a small act, smaller even than using eco-friendly laundry detergent, but it stood as a reminder of the 30 million trees planted to help save a countryside from ruin. And of the possibilities that show themselves whenever people stand together to fight an injustice. It's no wonder Maathai and her army of tree planters met with resistance; rhetoric to the contrary, there's nothing scarier than Third World democracy. Rhetoric to the contrary, you can bet that the mining bosses in New Guinea are none too happy about local protests, and that the dam builders in India would just as soon the farmers quit organizing to save their fields.

So far, the loggers and mining bosses and dam builders outnumber, or at least overpower, the protestors. You can bet they'll do everything in their considerable arsenals to keep it that way, to ensure that "foreign investors" can continue to relieve the locals of their oil, land, gold, diamonds, timber--whatever the ecological consequences. And for anyone who thinks it's only jungle tribes and distant nations who suffer, remember that every coffin we fly in from Baghdad or Fallujah is one more offering to the hydrocarbon gods.

With global recognition of people like Wangari Maathai, it is at least possible to look ahead to real change, a transposition of Galilean proportions. To understand the urgency, consider that in October 1999, the six-billionth child was born to our planet. Before that child reaches puberty, the seven-billionth will be born, expand its lungs and vie for its share of the fragile planetary halo we call the atmosphere. Happy birthday, baby, and peace on earth. x


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