Deserve Fair Price for Their Lumber, Says Nobel Laureate
By Haider Rizvi*
Environmentalist Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, spoke with Tierramérica about the threat of illegal logging worldwide.
NEW YORK - Wangari Muta Maathai has, for the last three decades, been one of the world's leading activists against illegal logging. In 1977 she founded the Green Belt Movement in her native Kenya, with a simple yet resounding message: trees are a source of life and an instrument for the fight against hunger and against gender inequality.
Since then, she has been dedicated to spreading this message to women in her country and throughout the African continent. In Kenya alone, she has contributed to the fact that 30 million trees have been planted around homes, schools and churches, according to the movement's figures.
Born in 1940 and mother of three, Maathai has something that few African women are given the opportunity to aspire to: academic achievement. She holds a Master's degree in biology and a doctorate in anatomy. She is currently the deputy minister of environment in Kenya.
In 2004 she became the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize, ''for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.''
Maathai met with Tierramérica for an exclusive dialogue in New York, where she took part in the Fifth World Conference on Women, a meeting to follow up on the gender equality goals set at the conference held in Beijing 10 years ago.
Q: What do you think about the illegal logging that is going on in many parts of the world?
A: We are all very concerned because that usually means the loss not only of the forests, but also of biodiversity. It's happening in the Amazon. It's also happening in Indonesia. I was recently asked by eleven heads of state around the Congo Basin to try to be a goodwill ambassador for the Congo forests ecosystem. Much of the threat to that forest is illegal logging. It's a very serious problem throughout the world.
Q: How does illegal logging affect the lives of the peoples who lives in these forests?
A: Forests are very valuable resource, a resource that can bring a lot of wealth to the people who live in them. But, unfortunately, the people are without knowledge, without skills, and without capital, so often they give away these resources for virtually nothing. So, they remain poor and their resources are being exploited by people who generate a lot of wealth for themselves. That is one of the other reason why we would like to call upon companies that are logging in these areas, but not willing to log in their own countries, to consider better payment for the product, and to support governments in this region so that they can add value to these resources.
Q: What role should the industrialized world play in halting illegal logging?
A: Developed countries, especially the G8 (Group of Eight - Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United States) countries, must allow market access to the poor countries whose raw material they exploit. Without fair trade, it is very difficult for the Millenium Development Goals to be realized in developing countries.
Q: What do you say about the role of the consumers in the United States and Europe? For example, the wealthy who want to be buried in coffins made of illegal mahogany from the Amazon, and cost several thousand dollars each?
A: We need to educate citizens in the developed countries about over-consumption, which we have been talking about for many years. We need to introduce this philosophy of recycling and re-use. It's not very well accepted in the developed countries. We all need to understand that this world has a finite amount of resources. They are wasting resources at the expense of others who remain extremely poor. I was recently in Japan, and there is a Japanese word that was very pleasing to me because it said that after the Second World War, the Japanese are very conscious of reducing, reusing and recycling and that word is 'mottainai' -- meaning ''what a waste''. This word should be embraced, especially by the G8 countries, because they need to use resources efficiently. Remember that there are millions of people in the world who are living in extreme poverty.
Q: What do you think of the recent (Feb 12) murder of Dorothy Stang, a U.S.-born activist, who was involved in the struggle of indigenous people of the Brazilian Amazon for so many years?
A: We know that activists and environmentalists are always in danger because when they try to advocate for the protection and better utilization of these resources, they are working against the interests of very powerful companies and individuals. In Brazil we also lost Chico Mendes, and we lost Ken Saro Wiwa in Nigeria, and I am sure there are many who disappeared locally whose names will never be known. It's very dangerous to try to stop people who are accessing and controlling these resources.
Q: As an activist you have faced harassment, intimidation, and even imprisonment. How does it feel to be part of the government, now that you are the Deputy Minister of Environment in Kenya?
A: That is the prize you get after a long and consistent struggle.
* Haider Rizvi is a Tierramérica contributor.