The Words of Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai, wearing a turquoise dress and headband, speaking

Wangari Maathai’s work can’t be pigeonholed. Instead of viewing poverty, debt, human rights, social justice, environmentalism and women’s rights as isolated issues, Maathai has deftly addressed their connectivity and the relationships between them. Examining symptoms and root causes is how Maathai has succeeded in taking a seemingly simple idea, like tree planting, and has used it to fight larger, underlying problems.

Read Maathai’s thoughts on her work and the issues most important to her:

On planting trees and democracy

"I found myself not just a woman wanting to plant trees to provide food and firewood. I found myself a woman fighting for justice, a woman fighting for equity. I started planting trees and found myself in the forefront of fighting for the restoration of democracy in my country."

—from a 2005 presentation at Northwestern University

On winning the Nobel Prize

"This was a very big surprise. I was not seeking the Nobel because I knew that the committee doesn’t look at the environment, it looks at peace, and I wasn’t working on the issue of peace specifically. I was contributing toward peace, and that is what the committee recognized: that, indeed, we need to step back and look at a more expanded concept of peace and security."

—from a 2005 interview in The Progressive

On poverty and environment

"Poverty is both a cause and a symptom of environmental degradation. You can’t say you’ll start to deal with just one. You’re trapped. When you’re in poverty, you’re trapped because the poorer you become, the more you degrade the environment, and the more you degrade the environment, the poorer you become. So it’s a matter of breaking the cycle."

—from a 2005 interview in The Progressive

On the relationship between women’s rights and environmentalism

"Many women in rural areas said they were concerned about firewood, which was the main source of energy. They were concerned about water; there wasn’t adequate clean drinking water. They were concerned about nutritious food, and they were concerned about poverty, especially among women. I immediately suggested that perhaps what we should do with these women is to plant trees. I saw the connection between land degradation and lack of water."

—from a 2005 interview in The Progressive

On symptoms and causes

"The more I looked into the environment, and the more I looked into the problems that people were complaining about, especially women, the more I understood that what we were complaining about were the symptoms. And that we needed to understand the causes of those symptoms. Why did we deforest our country?"

—from the film TAKING ROOT: The Vision of Wangari Maathai

On being an activist

"It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. So we must stand up for what we believe in. And we cannot be intimidated."

—from the film TAKING ROOT

On fair trade

"Poor developing countries are still being persuaded to sell to the developed market raw materials…. We are being persuaded to open up our markets in the name of free trade. When we open our markets, the manufactured goods come to us and we buy them with the little money we have. We are not able to sell our goods, we are not able to add value to our goods, and when we sell the raw materials, we get very little money."

—from a 2005 interview in The Progressive

On being jailed for challenging the government

"Prison humbles you because it’s deliberately humiliating. But you get out of there ready to fight your battle till the end. If I had never gone to prison, maybe I would not have been as persistent, as patient as I became."

—from a 2005 interview in O Magazine

On international debt forgiveness

"Those debts were solicited through very corrupt deals. Many of those debts never benefited the people. To continue to punish the ordinary people in the villages who never benefited is very, very inhuman and very unfair. But many people don’t know that, especially citizens of the countries that are owed that money. That is why they keep saying: ‘When you borrow, you have to pay.’"

—from a 2005 interview in The Progressive

On culture and colonization

"Culture is coded wisdom. Wisdom that has been accumulated for thousands of years and generations…. All people have their own culture. But when you remove that culture from them, then you kill them in a way. You kill them. You kill a very large part of them."

—from the film TAKING ROOT

On her time in the United States

"Those of us who lived in Africa were very cut off from the oppression of black people in [the United States]. It made me much more aware of the human rights struggle. As I went home, this influenced me in terms of pursuing or expecting respect for human rights, respect for providing space, for equality…. When I encountered violations of human rights by my own people, my experience in the United States gave me the courage to stand up and say 'This is not right.'”

—from a 2005 interview in The Progressive

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