Greening the future - interview with Wangari Maathai

The Green Belt Movement promotes tree planting as a way of achieving equity, improved livelihoods and environmental conservation. Just weeks before she passed away, its founder Professor Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Laureate, talked to IUCN’s Daniel Shaw about the importance of ensuring gender equality in natural resource management.

Wangari Maathai Photo: The Green Belt Movement

Gender considerations have been at the heart of the work of the Green Belt Movement. Could you tell us a little about how gender fits within the GBM’s approach?

In the GBM, which is largely in Africa and more intensively in Kenya, we know that women produce and buy most of the food for their families and communities, which are very dependent on the land, soil, rivers, and forests for their livelihoods. When we started, we went to the women because they are the people who deal with these primary natural resources. For us it was almost a natural thing to reach out to the women and ask them to participate in the restoration and protection of those resources.

But what we saw over the course of the years was that it became necessary to work not only with the women but also with the broader community, with the men and the youth, because in the end dealing with the environment means dealing with the community. Within the Green Belt Movement, our focus continues to be protection, restoration and conservation, using women as the driving force—and they are really very good at it because that is what their livelihoods are about.

Are there instances when the gender cause can be pushed too far, pushed against certain cultural norms of societies to the point beyond a comfortable balance?

Well I think it is very important to move within the boundaries we can accommodate within our cultures, within our religions. While trying to minimize the aspects that hold women back, we also don’t want to put women on a platform where they will feel uncomfortable to compete. It is difficult for women to move ahead without alienating themselves from the society to which they want to belong. They still want to get married, to have families, to be perceived well by their communities. This is the case for women around the world I think. I haven’t come across a woman yet who thinks “Yes, I have arrived” in that sense. There are still a lot of challenges.

Gender advocacy has traditionally been left up to women. How can we get more men to take up the cause?

Well actually there are already a lot of men who support the cause of women at the parliamentary and local levels. In Kenya, for example, we just passed a new constitution that is extremely supportive of women and this was advocated for by many men, not only women. There are fewer and fewer men who would consciously oppose policies that support women.

Partly it is our own traditions, our poverty and attitudes, even our religion, that continue to hold women back. It is here that men play a much bigger role, because they are often the protectors and enforcers of traditions and religions. So we need to work on men, but we also need to work on ourselves, to change attitudes, continue to believe in ourselves and support each other, in order to make the kind of progress that is still needed.

This interview appears in issue 43 of arborvitae, the newsletter of IUCN’s Forest Programme.

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