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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Trees and Peace
distributed 10/15/04 - ©2004

If the term "eco-justice" were more widely known, last week's awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai might be less controversial.

The news report speak of her as "an environmentalist" and "a woman who planted trees." Those short-hand descriptions, though, don't begin to describe her astonishing work.

True, the "Green Belt Movement" that Maathai founded has planted 30 million trees. The movement has also empowered women, challenged government corruption, demanded human rights and democracy, and engaged the forces of economic globalization. That powerful populist movement is seeking health and healing for an entire continent. The Green Belt Movement is doing "eco-justice."

One news report this week broke away from the "environmentalist" label: "While Wangari is called an 'environmentalist,' her brilliance is that she understands power. Wangari and her movement have allowed women to find their voices to question everything from their husband's control of firewood to former President Moi's rule."

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Deforestation is the starting point for the Green Belt Movement. In Africa as a whole, half of the forests have been felled within the last hundred years. The devastating loss of trees is even more severe within Kenya -- the tree cover there is perhaps only 3% of what it once was.

One significant cause of the deforestation is the proliferation of tea and coffee plantations. And, since Kenya has no other fossil fuels -- coal, oil and electricity all have to be imported -- many trees are cut down to provide firewood.

The loss of forests has widespread and devastating effects. (A recent Eco-Justice Notes pointed to deforestation as a cause of the disasters in Haiti.) The removal of trees leads to the loss of topsoil and flooding, and it amplifies a cycle of poverty. In Kenya, deforestation has also led to the rapid spread of deserts and the further loss of productive farm land.

Maathai said, "Losing topsoil should be compared to losing territories to an invading enemy. And indeed, if African countries were so threatened, they would mobilize their armies, the police, the reserves -- even citizens would be called in to fight."

She did call on the citizens. She called on farmers -- most of them women -- to plant trees to prevent the loss of topsoil. She went to the schools, involving children in the planting and care of trees, and the children took the message home to their parents. She also persuaded the Kenyan subsidiary of Mobil Oil to fund the establishment of tree nurseries.

The Green Belt Movement has also taken on population issues. Kenya's population growth rate is among the highest in the world, doubling within about 20 years. Maathai wrote, "Suppressed, poverty-stricken, and hungry people do not plan their families, and they are not concerned with environmental conservation, even though they are the first victims of environmental degradation." Family planning, political empowerment, poverty relief and nutrition are all part and parcel of conservation work.

A decade ago, Maathai reflected on an accomplishments of the Green Belt Movement that is still far from being achieved in the US. "We have raised the environmental agenda from one that concerns women and children and unemployed men in the countryside to a national political issue. This is very, very important because if we are going to change, everybody has to be involved: politicians, academicians, industrialists, investors, developers -- everybody."

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This week, the head of the Nobel Peace Prize committee said, ""Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment." "We have emphasized the environment, democracy building and human rights and especially women's rights. We have added a new dimension to the concept of peace."

The head of the UN Environment Program, based in Nairobi, said about this year's Peace Prize, "Understanding is growing throughout the world of the close links between environmental protection and global security."

In contrast, in this week's debate between presidential contenders Bush and Kerry, the opening question had to do with the prospects for security in the US. Both men focused their answers on tracking down and killing terrorists. In the entire series of presidential and vice-presidential debates, there was one question on "the environment" -- and it was answered superficially by both Kerry and Bush.

Thankfully, the rest of the world is coming to grips with eco-justice. Community activists like Wangari Maathai, non-governmental organizations like the United Nations and even the World Bank, and many national governments see the connections between ecological sustainability, economic justice, democracy, security, and human rights. The understanding is growing that all those factors are pieces of the same puzzle -- a puzzle that we must assemble properly for the sake of our global community.

I give thanks to God for the courageous and visionary work of Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement. I give thanks for the wisdom of the Nobel committee is seeing that movement as an outstanding expression of peacemaking. And I pray that the rest of the world will soon come to share in those essential eco-justice insights.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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