Nobel Peace Prize recipient Wangari Maathai arrived to a sold-out crowd in Campbell Hall last Friday to discuss her award-winning work to restore forests and wildlife in Kenya.
Maathai received the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her role in founding the Green Belt Movement in 1976, which encouraged Kenyan women to plant nearly 30 million trees over three decades. Maathai said she created the program in response to the mass desertification of Africa. Celebrity Oprah Winfrey, a Montecito resident, attended the event.
Maathai said Kenya lacked trees to absorb rainwater, leading to soil and drinking water devastation. She said a thick blanket of dust and brown rivers could be seen from outer space.
Maathai said her program forces people to realize the current dangers facing the environment.
“We have to learn to embrace our problems and deal with them,” Maathai said. “You cannot blame the government. You have to blame yourself.”
The thirty-year effort has resulted in the growth of trees nearly thirty to forty feet high, she said, as well as an improvement in the African climate. It has also caused several species of birds to return to their native homes.
“We need to take care of this planet because it’s the only planet we got,” Maathai said. “If the human species disappeared, [the animals would] say, thank God. It is us who cannot live without them.”
Maathai said she thinks countries need to learn how to conserve because their resources are sometimes extracted from poverty-stricken countries. She said people should recycle and reuse materials to make clothing items, such as the Japanese Furoshiki scarf made from recycled plastic.
“We must manage resources responsibly and equitably,” she said. “We can’t deal with the issue in a separate way. We must learn to share resources we have on this planet and recognize they are limited.”
To secure a more pleasant future, Maathai said, citizens should work to increase social harmony at both the national and local level.
“We must respect and embrace everybody in the community,” she said. “We belong to the same human family.”
Maathai said she thinks every country needs peace, democracy and sustainable development in order to function properly.
“If you have these three pillars, development can take place,” Maathai said.
Regardless of her award, Maathai said she will continue her environmental efforts.
“The challenge is so huge, I feel like I’m still scratching the surface, like a drop of water in the ocean,” Maathai said.