Excerpts from an interview by Geoffrey Lean in UNEP's Our Planet with Wanagari Maathai, creator of the Green Belt Movement and winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.
Photo by Banson, courtesy of UNEPAfrican culture was a culture of peace built around trees. Many communities in Kenya, and I am sure throughout Africa, had the concept of peace trees. When elders were seeking reconciliation among communities and individuals they would sit around specific trees. Indeed the Luhya people of western Kenya would even greet each other, when they met, with the name of the species they used as a peace tree, murembe.
Among the Kikuyu the peace tree was a shrub called thigi, with many shoots. Sticks were cut from the shoots and given to elders as a symbol of authority. The elders carried the staffs everywhere they went. If they found people quarrelling, they would first try to dialogue with them, and – if they then made a judgement that there was no reason why they should be at odds – they would put the stick between them. Once an elder had done that the protagonists were supposed to separate and go and reconcile. Thigi were protected. They could not be cut for anything else, or used for building or firewood. But now they have vanished so completely that I myself have never seen one.
They disappeared because they were no longer valued and their importance was no longer an issue. People were no longer being made to reconcile by elders in the community. With colonialism that whole structure was destroyed. Now when people collide they are arrested and put in jail. There are no more thigi trees and there’s a lot more conflict.
As a child, I always used to see vegetation all around me: the land was covered with forests and trees. We did not have a word for desert, because we never saw it.’ I remember drawing water from a spring fascinated by the way the clean cool water pushed its way through the soft red clay so gently that even the individual grains of the soil were left undisturbed, and streams, beautiful streams. The trees were cut down for tea plantations and the streams and springs dried out. I feel the tragedy under my feet, Gullies tell of soil erosion, unknown before. Hunger is on the faces of the people.
When resources are degraded or overexploited, people fight over them. Little of Kenya’s original tree cover remains, and the overexploitation of the land has already led to conflict. Pastoralists and settled farmers have clashed over use of the remaining healthy areas. The same process is behind the conflict in Darfur.
Professor Mjøs, Chair of the Nobel Peace Committee, underlines the point. ‘Present-day wars and conflict take place not so much between, as within, states,’ he said. ‘When we analyse local conflicts we tend to focus on their ethnic and religious aspects. But it is often the underlying ecological circumstances that bring the more readily visible aspects to the flashpoint.’ He cited the desertification in Darfur, conflict following deforestation in the Philippines, and the role of soil erosion and deforestation in revolt in Mexico, and added: ‘Competition for minerals has been an important element of several conflicts in Africa in recent years. Competition for timber has figured prominently in Liberia, in Indonesia and in Brazil.’