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Cablegate: Kenya's Wangari Maathai Continues to Speak Out

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1. Summary: Kenya's Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai,
recipient of the 2007 Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human
Rights, continues to be a forceful advocate for better governance as
a path to environmentally sustainable economic development in Kenya
and across Africa. Her ability to influence policy and practice on
the ground, however, is limited at times by the short-sighted nature
of Kenyan politics. Maathai is continually finding new avenues to
advance an agenda shared by the United States. Even if she loses her
Parliamentary seat in the December election, Maathai will remain an
influential voice for conservation. End summary.

Passion for Tree Planting

2. In a July 26 meeting with Econoff, Prof. Wangari Maathai, who is
also an elected Member of Parliament (MP), spoke passionately about
a range of environmental concerns, but primarily focused on
tree-planting and reclaiming environmentally degraded areas.
Maathai said that local communities needed responsible leadership
and improved educational outreach to fully understand the importance
of sustainable management of resources. Lamenting the uncontrolled
development of Nairobi's river catchment areas, she said her Green
Belt Movement (GBM) is "ready to do battle" to protect the
watersheds. She recently challenged African nations to "ring the
bell" and confront the threat of global climate change. She
challenged community development projects that do not consider
environmental ramifications such as road building, and supported
community-based reclamation of degraded forests in western Kenya.

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Education and Involvement at Ground Level

3. According to Prof. Maathai, education is needed to build
farm-level awareness and understanding of environmental concerns
such as deforestation and desertification. Information does not
reach enough people because it is often disseminated in English or
Kiswahili, rather than in local languages more farmers understand.
Many subsistence farmers are poor people who are not thinking about
tomorrow, but are just trying to meet the needs of today. Maathai
believes that by increasing their awareness of environmental
degradation, they will become involved in the solutions.

Planting, Prayers, Promise

4. Under the Plant a Billion Tree Campaign initiated by the GBM and
the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF), GBM
pledged to plant two million trees in Kenya. Maathai also advocates
planting a green belt of trees across the Sahara Desert from Dakar
to Djibouti to combat global climate change and desertification, and
to contribute to soil stabilization and watershed management.

5. Closer to home, Maathai passionately addressed some of the
environmental challenges in development and building in riverine
areas of Nairobi, and the loss of parks and green space in the city.
She became very zealous when describing sites in Nairobi where
building and development along the riverbed is exposing the bright
red soil to erosion, damaging water quality. Her GBM has placed
signs near these grim sites, imploring people to stop grabbing and
degrading public lands. She is amazed that people continue to do so
in the shadow of these signs, attributing this to greed and
corruption. She left the interview with EconOff to meet with the
Mayor of Nairobi and let him know that "we are ready for battle"
over some of the sites. She explained that GBM is planning to have
a planting event of hope and promise, beginning with prayers and
then planting trees to reclaim recently disturbed river catchment
regions in Nairobi, inviting Econoff to participate in planting.

Good Governance

6. Prof. Maathai commented that good governance is essential to
environmental health, and good management of resources contributes
to peace. She explained that sometimes greed gets the better of
people, giving the example that corruption allows building in
riverbeds. Prof. Maathai also cited the example of the public works
department sometimes clear-cutting all vegetation along roads to
remove obstructions to vision that can cause accidents, which also
accelerates erosion. Prof. Maathai was quoted in a local press
report saying, "We need to protect our water catchments by planting
more trees. If we destroy the environment, we will have no food."
Maathai's views sometimes mobilize local communities to action.
Residents of Nakuru in western Kenya are protesting the felling of
over 1,000 trees in a road improvement project, according to a local
press report.

7. Prof. Maathai promotes good governance and community

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involvement as keys to effective and sustainable economic
development, a key area the Mission supports. The popularity of a
music festival last week highlighting conservation topics such as
desertification and deforestation exemplifies the grassroots support
for Prof. Maathai's work and interest in a better environment.

The Food Security Conundrum

8. Prof. Maathai is embarrassed when Kenyans need food aid, adding
that population growth is not so much the issue as the capacity to
manage it. She believes that Kenya could feed itself on a
sustainable basis if farmers were trained to move from subsistence
to sustainable, technology based-farming systems and cultivated
unplanted land outside environmentally sensitive areas.

9. Prof. Maathai acknowledges that biotechnology could increase
agricultural production and food supplies. However, in the context
of the Parliament's discussion of the Biosafety Bill to regulate the
use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), she highlighted the
moral and ethical responsibility of government and scientists to
regulate biotechnology. "We can do damage to ourselves if we are not
careful. We have a moral obligation to not put people in danger.
People trust the government and scientists; they have a moral
responsibility to protect the people."

Global Vision Can Conflict With Local Needs

10. Prof. Maathai appears regularly in the local news and speaks
publicly on a variety of environmental topics. She recently
criticized African countries for not responding to climate change,
challenging them to take action to mitigate the likely significant
impacts of climate change in Africa. On the other hand, Maathai's
global perspective is often at odds with her constituents, who are
more concerned about personal issues such as paying their children's
school fees and basic survival.


11. Professor Maathai's influence over the Kenyan government is
limited by her decision to decline President Kibaki's appointment to
be the Assistant Minister for Environment, and by the general
short-sightedness of Kenya's politicians at the national and local
levels. However, even if she loses her seat in Parliament in
elections scheduled for later this year, she will remain an
influential voice for conservation in Kenya and indeed around the

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