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Campaigners vow to confront ‘cancers’ Maathai struggled to contain in Africa

A member of the Greenbelt Movement holds a portrait of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Prof Wangari Maathai, at the NGO’s office in Nairobi. Prof Maathai died of ovarian cancer.  AFP
A member of the Greenbelt Movement holds a portrait of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Prof Wangari Maathai, at the NGO’s office in Nairobi. Prof Maathai died of ovarian cancer. AFP 

Africa needs to remain focused and continue following the late Wangari Maathai’s initiatives for environmental sustainability to address climate change across the continent, environmentalists say. (Read: Even in ill health, Maathai remained a strong fighter)

Prof Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2004, was founder of the Green Belt Movement , which aimed to reforest Kenya, stop soil erosion and provide firewood for families by paying poor women to plant trees.
She passed away on September 25.

“In the era of climate change, the professor has left behind adaptation actions that we must implement to save the poorest of the poor that solely depend on the environment and natural resources,” said Gaster Kawuubye Kiyingi, the national project manager for Tree Talk Plus, a network of organisations engaged in the development and sustainability of the forestry sector in Uganda.

Mr Kiyingi said some of these adaptations include campaigning for forest-based enterprises and the sustained use and planting of more trees.

Since its inception in 1997 the Green Belt Movement has directly planted over 30 million trees in Africa and assisted nearly 900,000 women to establish nurseries and plant trees to reverse the effects of deforestation.

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The United Nations estimated that by the time of Prof Maathai’s death over 11 billion trees had been planted, especially in Africa, by different organisations through her campaign.

Mr Kiyingi said Africa needs to stay focused on Prof Maathai’s initiatives because it is key to attaining the Millennium Development Goals — eight time-bound goals tackling poverty and its various dimensions that the UN member states agreed to in 2000.

“There is an urgent need for Africa to address issues relating to environmental laws and governance, law enforcement and trade in natural resources. They are a ‘cancer’ eating at the very core of our leadership, and it is what Maathai (fought against),” he told IPS.

Achieve dream

According to Jan Vandenabeele, the executive director of Better Globe Forestry Limited, a Kenyan afforestation company, there remains a need for civil society and social organisations to join hands to plant more trees and harvest them sustainably. But, he said, Kenya may be close to achieving Maathai’s dream.

“In Kenya the new Constitution is very clear that every piece of arable land should have at least 10 per cent of forest cover. If this is implemented, then we will be living the dream of the late Prof Maathai,” said Vendenabeele. He added that for Africa to realise the dream of a green continent there needs to be more investment in environmental research.

Maxwell Kinyanjui of the Woodlands Trust 2000, a Kenyan organisation that provides afforestation and allied services to those involved in the tree industry, said that addressing deforestation in Africa, leaders and related organisations must begin by addressing energy sources.

“Charcoal production is one of the major causes of deforestation in Africa. But until farmers invest in sustainable charcoal production, people will continue cutting down trees that were not originally planted for the sake of charcoal production,” he said.
Land grabbing is another problem that continues to affect forests in Africa. Prof Maathai was steadfast in protecting natural resources, not only in Kenya, but also in other African countries. In Uganda, she campaigned to save the Mabira Forest Reserve.

“I remember Prof Maathai for her efforts to protect Karura Forest on the outskirts of Nairobi city. The forest land had already been (claimed) by individuals linked to the former political regime between 1998 and 2002. But she protested until all the people who had been allocated land by the then government left,” said Paul Barasa, a former senior corporate affairs officer at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute.

Prof Maathai, a professor of veterinary anatomy, also prevented former Kenyan former President Daniel arap Moi from erecting a 62-storey building on a recreational park. Now Uhuru Park is the largest public park in Kenya. Mr Kiyingi says more needs to be done to save the trees and forests of Africa.

“Each African country needs to have proper policies that can protect tree cover from illegal logging and encroachments. But the sad thing is that the very leaders who are supposed to protect the forests are the same people who grab forest land, or conspire with grabbers,” said Kiyingi.

“Undertaking tree planting as an income-generating activity will be sufficient motivation for tree planting across Africa.”

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