Wangari Maathai
April 24, 2008

I'm extremely honored and humbled to be back here in Geneva at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. It is in every sense, a coming home.

Today, I shared a meal with a family that has become part of my extended family, a family that became my children's family when they first came here. It gave me a lot of peace knowing that my children were in the company and the custody of a loving family with Frank and Donna Pullano and their children. As we shared a lunch this afternoon in front of this beautiful lake, I felt like moments like this are to be cherished forever, and I thank Hobart and William Smith College for the great tradition of allowing members of the community to become host families, for had there not been such an arrangement, I would never have known Frank and Donna and their family.

By every standard, Hobart and William Smith Colleges are the best place to be, and I know that at the moment the grounds may look very familiar and the lake may look familiar, but believe me, when you leave this campus and you go somewhere else in the course of your life, you will always remember the beautiful grounds, the green lawns, the beautiful buildings, the great lake. You will always wish you could come back, and you will always be inspired. I hope that as you move through these grounds that you will recognize that you are in a very, very special place that will bless you a lot.

My daughter, who is here today with me, graduated 14 years ago and my son 12 years ago. I know that they are who they are today because of the enrichment that they received in the four years that they spent on these grounds, and I'm grateful to Hobart and William Smith Colleges, to the professors, to the staff and to those who shaped them in the course of those 4 years that they were here.

Being back brings many memories. As I said, I am very happy to see the Pullanos again and to recall their beautiful home where we have spent many hours. This afternoon we went there and we planted a weeping Japanese Willow tree. And I hope that when that tree grows, it will remind them of the beauty of this little city that has given so much to the many students from the rest of the world who have come here and who never forget the wonderful life that they shared with the members of the community.

Now a little bit about why the Nobel Peace Committee gave a prize to an environmentalist. Those of you who have studied the 100 year life of the Nobel Peace Prize, you'll recognize the shift. Initially they recognized people who act very closely with wars, like people who went to the battlefield and buried the dead soldiers with respect and people who went and picked the injured soldiers and nursed them and took care of them.

Down the road they kept shifting, and in more recent years they started seeing that it is very difficult for the world to enjoy peace if we do not respect human rights after so many have suffered atrocities in the world. And so they started honoring people who work for human rights. So we saw people like Martin Luther King being honored, people like Mandela, people like Desmond Tutu, people like Dick Clark. And in 2004, they came to recognize, I'm sure through studies and observations, that the area of environment needs special attention.

They came to recognize that it is very important for the human species, as a family, to recognize that it is virtually impossible to live on this planet in peace with each other if we do not learn to respect human rights, if we do not learn to respect the diversity that is within every community on the planet Earth. That it is very important for us to manage our resources sustainably, share those resources more equitably and manage those resources with an understanding that we are only a passing cloud. That we are here today but others will come tomorrow. That we live on this planet Earth, which has a limited amount of natural resources, and that these resources, if they are not taken care of, if they are not managed properly, if they are not shared equitably, if they are not managed in a way that you think of the people tomorrow, those who come behind us will not have enough resources to also take care of their lives.

And so they saw the need for us to manage our resources in a responsible manner, but they also saw that it is necessary for us to manage ourselves politically and economically in a way that will make that possible in order for us to preempt the many reasons why so many of us go to war with each other, whether it is within the community, within our boarders, or even globally. And if you think about it, there is hardly any conflict in the world that we can think about that is not over competition of who will access, who will control and who will manage those resources. And when there is competition sooner or later, there will be conflict. So what the message of the Nobel Committee was that time has come for the human species to appreciate this linkage between sustainability, good governance and peace. And to work towards preventing wars and conflict.
We had been working for over 30 years on that theme but we were looking at the issues at home, we were looking at the way our resources were being mismanaged, our resources were being privatized by a few people at the expense of the many. Human rights were being violated especially because we had a dictatorial system, and we came to realize that it is very important for us to promote multi-party democracy, so that we could promote freedoms that ought to be the right of every person on the planet. Freedom to express yourself, freedom to assemble, freedom to get information, freedom to elect the person you want to be in charge of your country. And all these freedoms were being denied by a few, and so we became part of a pro-democracy movement, but we started by planting trees.

The process (for those of you who have read the book, I will not bore you, because you know the story) started very benignly by responding to needs of women from the countryside who were saying that they needed firewood, they needed clean water, they needed food, they needed an income. As I listened in preparation for our women conferences that was due to be staged in Mexico in 1975, I knew that they were talking about an environment that was degraded, that was no longer able to sustain their livelihoods, and so I told the women, 'well, we can plant trees.' It's not as if I knew what the tree would eventually become.
And by the way, I was not starting a movement. I had no intention of starting a movement. I was starting a project, a small project to coincide with a time of the women conference, and I didn't know how long that project would last because I actually had other issues I was dealing with. I was at the University, I was working with very few women, in fact there were only three of us at the University who were in the academic course, and we wanted to be treated like everybody else. I guess like Blackwell, there was something in those people who were managing the University that made them feel that because we were women we did not deserve to be paid the same salary that our male colleagues were getting, and I had a problem with that.

I actually went to this forum where women were meeting, not to talk about the countryside, but to talk about the rights of women in the University of Nairobi. But when I started listening to these women from the countryside, I realized that they were talking about very basic issues, and I realized that they were talking about the same countryside that I knew as a child which had clean water and plenty of it, which had a lot of wood, which had a lot of food. So I wanted to know what the hell happened to the country I knew as a child, and when I dug deeper, I realized that in the course of time, a lot of that wood lot had been removed to make way for cash crops, mainly tea, coffee, sugar cane and other cash crops for export.

Because of that, the clearing left nothing for the women, they did not have firewood and they had to go long distances to collect firewood.  Also because of clearing, whenever it rained, there was massive soil erosion and rivers were brown with silt. I recognized that that was partly why women were complaining. Not only were they losing the soil, but they were also not able to get the clean drinking water that I knew as a child because of soil erosion. Also, some rivers were drying up.

That’s when I told the women, let us plant trees! They said, 'we don't know how to plant trees,' and I said, 'neither do I.' So we went to look for the foresters, and the foresters came, and the foresters tried to teach the women. They had a little problem because they didn’t see why I, as a University lecturer, was wasting my time with women trying to plant a tree, which is something that you have to go to school to be trained to do. I said, 'you don’t have to go to school and get a diploma to dig a hole and put a tree seedling inside and water it.' The women actually thought that they couldn’t do it because they had been convinced that you needed to be educated to plant trees. Because, until then, nobody was planting trees. God was doing all the planting. And the foresters were planting exotic species. They were actually establishing plantations of monoculture. Plantations for the timber industry. So they thought, for one to plant these kind of trees, you need to have a diploma.

When the foresters proved a little too complicated, we decided to begin to teach each other, and that actually became the revolution in the movement. We started teaching each other. And that really was the beginning of a wonderful experience because women were able to learn that you really don’t need too much knowledge to dig a hole and plant a tree. They had a little problem looking for seeds in the beginning, but they very quickly learned the techniques of how to collect the seeds, how to look for trees that were in flower. They discovered that some of these trees can be propagated vegetatively, and they also learned some of these trees could only be propagated by seeds that had gone through the digestive system maybe of domestic animals or even of wildlife or birds. I am sure even the foresters didn’t know these things because they were very much dependent on the very selective exotic species.

I remember being taught by the women about trees that they actually liked very much because they could plant them on their fields and at the same time plant crops. The trees were good agri-forestry trees. They told me that these trees are propagated by wind, and the seeds are pods that fall in the fields and are among the first to germinate when the rains come. So the women learned to recognize those seedlings, those tree saplings, as they germinated. They could tell the difference between the tree sapling and the weed. And they would come with a pot of water and they would cultivate with a pot in front of them and every time they see that seedling they would remove it and they would put it in the water. The whole day and nothing would happen to that seedling. Then in the evening they would go home and they would transplant them. So in the end those women were producing trees which in every respect looked exactly like the trees that the foresters were planting, which was a great statement about what we came to call the women: foresters without a diploma.

Initially, tree planting was a very benign activity, and nobody bothered us because it was mostly a bunch of women getting together and teaching each other how to plant trees. But it became important also to teach them the other aspect of the linkage that I talked about: the linkage of governance. It's one thing to manage the resource, another to touch governance. Now who is in charge of resources, especially resources like forest, water, soil and land? It's usually the government that’s in charge. The people in power are usually in charge of these resources. And when you talk about managing those resources sustainably, accountably, transparently, sharing these resources equitably, you are stepping on the very big toes of those in power.

When we started talking about the importance of protecting forests and rivers, it meant that we would have to explain to the people in power how the resources were being poorly managed and how sometimes they are privatized by the people who are in charge, and how sometimes you get mismanagement, like illegal logging and cultivation in the forests. We started realizing that it is very important to hold our leaders accountable for the way they manage resources because they are not the owners of the resources; they are custodians. We put them in positions of authority to manage the resources for us because all of us cannot be managers. They are not supposed to privatize them, they are not supposed to own them and they are not supposed to exploit them to enrich themselves all at our expense.
When we started pointing out these problems in the government, that said that we were not doing what we were supposed to be doing. They told us to just plant trees and not worry about what happens to the forest, what happens to the waters. And of course we could not do that because that's part of the second leg, the second pillar, of what I talked about. Sustainable management, good governance. Good governance means you have to hold your leaders accountable, and you cannot hold your leaders accountable if you do not know how these resources are managed. That is when the Greenbelt movement started being seen as a dangerous organization.

The government said that we were not only teaching women how to plant trees but also putting bad ideas in their heads, like holding leaders accountable. As so we became projected as an anti-government organization, and it is during that time that we started getting persecuted and prevented from organizing. At one point during the very difficult years of President Mio, we had a law in our constitution that said you could not meet as a group if you were more than nine. How can that be? Many families are more than 9. The Pullanos are more then 9. They could never meet!

Some of these rules were of course put there so as to prevent people from enjoying their freedoms: the freedom of assembly, the freedom of association, the freedom of information. So we worked very hard, and eventually became part of the pro-democracy movement to try to reintroduce a multi-party competitive political system so that people could have space to be able to express themselves, to be able to assemble and to be able to be represented by the people of their choice. And in 1992 the multiparty system was introduce into Kenya, and we became again a multi-party political system, which is very important. And in 2002 for the first time we were able to put in place a very comparatively democratic system, and that is when I was elected a member of Parliament.

We were all really excited about it but those of you who have been following the politics of Kenya know that we didn't quite get it right because we were not very strong. We needed the support of others, and those others came from the ruling party because the ruling party had a problem. I don’t want to go into that because it’s a long story, but to cut it short, they split. And when they split, part of their members came to us, and we formed a very strong movement that eventually won the elections in 2002. But we had agreed that we would give those people who came to us some things. For example, we had agreed that we would change the constitution and make the leader of the group who joined us a Prime Minister. But when we won, we changed our mind, and we did not give him the Prime Ministership. We started creating and changing the constitution as promised, but to cut a long story short, we didn’t quite make it the way they wanted, we made it the way we wanted. And partly because a very strong part of our contingency wanted to retain the very powerful privileges that are given to the president, who is in many ways uncontrollable when he is in power because we don't have an institution to control him. That constitution was rejected, and as a result the ministers who worked against it were fired.

I'm giving you this to show you that what happened in the year 2007 at the elections was in many ways as a result of what was happening from the time we formed the government in 2002. Where we thought that we had created a very strong democratic government, we failed the test of trust because we did not keep our promise to those who had joined us. And I raised my voice and I said that I think it is wrong not to keep your word. We said we would create a space for them, we must do so. Nobody wanted to listen to me of course; they said, 'you don't know politics.' Politics means we have, that’s a bridge we have already crossed, now we are onto another ground. When we did the constitution conference and we were defeated and the ministers were fired, I refused to take my position, and I said, 'this thing is going to create trouble in this country because we have punished ministers who have a lot of following in this country, and their only mistake is to have said that hey don’t like this constitution. And they don't like this constitution because to a certain extent, it is not promoting fairness, it is not promoting justice. It is exclusive, and good governance is about inclusivity, about fairness, about justice.' And they said, 'don’t listen to her, she doesn’t understand politics.' So once again, they ignored my voice, and so I did not take up my position.

When the elections were done in 2007, the feeling in the country was that it was time to remove this government. Many people felt that the people who had been marginalized or the people who had been working against the government won. But the electoral commission announced that Raila Odinga had won, and he was immediately sworn in. That is when the country went into an eruption, and you saw what happened in January and February. We lost over 1,500 people, we lost a lot of property and we have more then half a million people who are displaced who need to be allowed from refugee camps, internal refugee camps, back to their farms. And although recently, those of you who have been following, we have formed our government, it is still not a very firm government until we have peace and those people who have been displaced have gone back home.

I should say that one of the major contentions is land. So many people were displaced because others feel that the land they're living on is their land. People were fighting over land, and so we go back to issue of the resource. If the resource is not sustainably managed, if it is not transparently and accountably managed, if it is not equitably shared, sooner or later there is a conflict. And we saw the results of that. It is not as if we did not raise our voice and tell those in power that something was wrong, but they did not listen and so many times our leaders do not listen because they think they know better. But we all know that anybody can make a mistake.

Now, for me, in Kenya, as in the many other parts of the world, the way to go is to try to promote justice and fairness, to manage our resources in a very responsible and accountable manner, to include others and to allow for the diversity that is within us to feel that it is included, that it is part of the whole and that it is not being marginalized. If we don’t listen, eventually, we pay a very heavy price, and unfortunately, it's always the little people who pay the price. The big people in Kenya are very busy now fighting over positions. We have formed a government of 42 ministers and 50 assistants. We have a house of about 210. Close to half the house is in the government. Now you tell me how they are going to manage. They say they will manage, but we will wait and see. And this is a classic example of how, when we do not do it right, we cannot enjoy peace. Right there before my very eyes, even as a tried to raise my voice, what I was talking about all these years was happening - that we were not able to preempt the causes of conflict.

Now the most important lesson that we get in Africa is that Africa has yet to learn to manage our resources, and the most important resources that need to be managed are our forests, land and water. Water is going to be one of the major causes of wars and conflict in the future. Some of the conflicts in fact, even in the Middle East are over water. And so when people don’t take care of their forests, they are nearly preparing for wars, rather then preempting causes of war. It is for this reason, not to mention the fact that we also have to be concerned about the climate change, that I have agreed to be the Good Will Ambassador of Congo Forest Ecosystem, and I'm very happy to say that the British government has given us $100 million to establish a fund.

The fund is going to be in the African Development Bank, and the co-chairs of the fund will be the former Prime Minister of Canada, the Rt. Honorable Paul Martin, and I, and we will work very closely with the governments within the region of the Congo Basin so as to help solve the problem of the forest. Not only is that a major forest, as we all know, we have three lands that we call the three lands of the planet: one is the Congo, the other is the Amazon and the third is the South East Asia Mountains around Borneo and Indonesia. And these forests are other threat. Not from the Rococo communities, not from people who need firewood, even though they contribute a little bit, but mainly from international timber industry. People who come and who want to take away the logs, they don’t want to pay governments to take down the logs; they want to take the logs because they want to make the best profits and they want to pay least to the countries. We need to increase the awareness in the world about the need for us to not use or buy wood products that have not been sustainably harvested, and I know this is not easy because how do you tell in Geneva that wood has been sustainably managed, sustainably harvested? Well we can demand it. We can say look for somewhere of marking, and there are initiatives which are helping the timber industry, honest people who want to make honest business, demonstrate and prove that the wood they are dealing with in their shops are sustainably harvested.

The other day I was in Tanzania, and we were launching a campaign to protect forests in Tanzania. They told me one of the biggest challenges they are facing is that, even though the government has said no timber should be removed from Tanzania before it is added value, millions of timber logs are being shipped illegally with ships waiting at the ports and small corners of the coastline to collect logs that are being sold to them by poor local natives who do not understand the value of that wood. Unfortunately these are some of the problems that we face unless we have an international understanding, an international campaign and an international effort so that consumers do not become the consumers of these products. It is going to be very, very difficult to protect these forests.

I know for the climate change, I want to first and foremost really commend Hobart and William Smith Colleges for the great initiative that you have committed to in your College. I was reading this newsletter, Hobart and William Smith Colleges Go Green. Fantastic commitment! It is not the big things that will save the planet. It is really the small things, the kind that you are doing here at the Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and I was very, very motivated and very fascinated by the initiatives that you are undertaking. I thought it was fantastic the way you bought these mugs so that you can reuse the mug instead of using paper and creating garbage. That is something that every college should be able to adopt. I hope they will learn from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. To use those mugs or to use the community bicycles, fantastic efforts! The only other place that I have seen a similar bicycle program is in Holland, where they also move a lot on bicycles and cut down on cars and other transport systems. I think that here in Hobart and William Smith Colleges you are really honorable and you are teaching as you do and I'm quite sure that many other colleges will pick up from you, the major and very good ideas that you are practicing. Back where I come from, planting trees is our main thing, partly because we need the trees and partly because it's easy to do.

I like to tell people that when I visited Japan, one of the lessons that I learned is a concept the Japanese call "mutainai," which encompasses the three Rs that you're already doing on campus: reuse, reduce and recycle. Mutainai also adds an aspect of being grateful, being appreciative, not wasting, and I thought that it was a very, very beautiful concept. When I first learned about that concept, I had the privilege of meeting the minister of environment, and I told her about this concept and she was very, very happy to hear that this concept ties up very much with the campaign to reuse, reduce, recycle. The next time I met the minister, she had actually produced a piece of cloth called furoshiki, and this piece of cloth is used by the Japanese to tie a gift. Traditionally they would tie this gift and when they come to you they give you the gift, you unwrap, you give the furoshiki back so they can reuse it again. The minister had actually produced many furoshiki, and she was giving every person who came to her office one so they would stop using paper.
This is a great example of the very many things we can do within our own situation. We don’t have to think of the big things.

One of the other things that I enjoyed a lot, and I know it’s a tradition of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, is the many community activities, community involvement that you have, and I want to encourage you students especially to get involved. This is the time to develop your interest for community service. I have come to the conclusion that the greatest thing that you will really enjoy in your life is the moment you serve, the moment you go beyond yourself and you serve others. I am not talking about religion; I'm talking about those little things you do on the campus. I was reading through some of the activities you have, and I even came across one group that knits. I thought that’s pretty neat! You just go there and you are knitting as converse. Other students are in clubs, some environmental, others play tennis or participate in Amnesty International. All of these activities on the campus are extremely important and they are part of what forms who you are. I recall when I was going through school (you all know that I went to Kansas, right? You can tell by my accent.), and when you go through school, you really don’t know what you will become, you don't know where your passion will drive you and sometimes it may drive you far from what you thought.

So get involved in community activities around you because that’s the best way to mold your talent to mold your passion. At this time, you are like a flower. And this is a wonderful time to observe flowers and to observe the blooms. I always think that if trees or flowers or blooms were like us human beings, sometimes they would be angry and they would close, they would say, 'I'm not blooming today.' But they never stop blooming. It's as if they are always giving their best, and sometimes I feel like young people, like you, that's really what you need to do. Just bloom. Because this is the best time for you to bloom.

Sometimes we can get overwhelmed by what we read, by what we hear, by the frustrations that we see on televisions or hear on the radio, and so I want to close my many comments with a little story. I like telling stories, if you have read the book , you know that storytelling was a very common thing in the African tradition, especially before we learned how to read and write. Before we saw books, we used to tell stories. So let me tell you a little story to remind you that you must never feel like your too little, like your too powerless, like you can't make a difference because you will be amazed what different you can make. I want to leave with you in the spirit of the hummingbird.

One day there was in this huge forest, there was a huge fire that broke out and it was sweeping throughout the forest, and all the animals were coming out of the forest and standing at the edge of the forest, overwhelmed, feeling completely powerless and not knowing what to do. Expect for this little hummingbird, who said, 'I'm going to do something about this fire.' So it flew to the nearest stream and brought one drop of water and put it on the raging fire. And it ran back and brought another drop, ran back brought another drop. It kept going up and down, up and down, and the other animals are watching it, and they are saying, 'what are you trying to do? This fire is too big, this fire is raging, this fire is overwhelming! There is absolutely nothing we can do. You might as well come here and join us.' The little bird wouldn’t hear of it. It kept going up and down, up and down, every time bringing a drop of water and putting it on the fire, hoping that every time that drop might make a difference. The other animals said, 'what are you trying to do? What are you doing?' And the little bird without wasting any time turned to them and said, 'I am doing the best I can.'

I want all of you to be hummingbirds and do the best you can wherever you go.