The Time is Still Now: Heeding Wangari Maathai’s Warnings in Turkana and Beyond

Dr. Wangari Maathai, the prophetic Kenyan environmentalist and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, recognized in the 1990s that deforestation in the horn of Africa would, if not addressed, lead to widespread tragedy.

Without trees to draw rainwater into the soil and store it under ground, she declared, the people for whom that land was home would suffer, especially as accelerating global warming brought increasing drought to Africa. Once water became a rare resource, she told journalists, neighbor would be pitted against neighbor, and conflict would escalate. To palliate deniers, she even coined the term “climate dysfunction.”

Now, the horror Maathai feared has begun.

Turkana, in northwestern Kenya, is facing its fourth severe drought in 20 years. Experts have been tracking it for years. It is clear that it is a consequence of global warming—and the human impact is horrific.

Without rain there is neither water nor grass to support the livestock on which the people depend. Cattle, goats and fowl perish, leaving the people without milk or meat or eggs. Hunger is everywhere. Children wither and die.

While there have been some long-term strategies, such as diversification of herds, the immediate effects are so severe that some of the responses of the victims make things worse. Women, desperate for cash to buy food they would, under normal conditions, grow, cut down the few remaining trees and burn them for charcoal, which they sell along the road. Men, frantic in the face of their families’ hunger, poach animals from neighbors, precipitating a life-sucking cycle of conflict.

As early as the 70s, Maathai recognized that trees and forests, with their capacity to capture rainwater and draw it down into the aquifer for later use even in lands naturally arid, are critical partners. To turn that insight into preventive action, she organized thousands of individual citizens—mostly rural women—and taught them to plant and nurture and then systematically harvest and replant trees. Under her leadership, more than a billion trees were planted, land saved or restored.

That insistence on agency was key to her work. But she also recognized that since the root causes were often remote, addressing the situation locally would not be enough. “The extreme global inequities and prevailing consumption patterns continue at the expense of the environment and peaceful co-existence,” she said in her Nobel Lecture. “The choice is ours.”

When I first met Maathai, she was in Washington, D.C., where she had spent the day with representatives from Congress, industry and the environmental lobby attempting to find solutions that would reduce degradation while ensuring strong economies and uncompromised democratic processes. She spoke of the day with hopefulness. Around me I could feel skepticism in the otherwise admiring crowd of mostly environmental policy experts.

As she picked up on the doubt, she smiled, paused and said: “Remember Acid Rain.” It was code for the proof that a government/business/environmental advocacy collaboration could work. Such a coalition successfully addressed toxic air produced in the Midwest from polluting the northeast in the 80s; surely this next generation of planners could do something of comparable brilliance, she suggested, smiling again. The atmosphere in the room changed.

This kind of encouragement was evident again the next year, when she was sitting in the hotel lobby in Copenhagen following the crushingly disappointing conclusion of the climate summit. The limousines carrying senior diplomats had pulled away, taking with them the hope of any lasting international commitment. Everywhere she looked she saw young persons sunk in despair. “Get some sleep,” she said to them gently. “We will win next year.”

The kind of dogged determination Maathai never lost is what is needed now to address the question of Turkana at this moment and prepare for the crisis that lies around the bend. UNICEF and other international aid agencies are already working with local government to bring food and water to these particular victims and pressing for more funding so they can sustain the work until the next rains come. Then it will be time to design long-range local solutions—including trees.

Meanwhile, global leaders must press for global solutions. “Policies and development interventions that reduce risks, diminish livelihood constraints and expand opportunities for increased household resilience to drought,” Kenyan scientists wrote in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Science, “are critical complements to the existing pastoral strategies.”

The need is urgent. “In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground,” Maathai said in Stockholm in 2004. “A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”

Maathai never gave up. Neither should we.


Susanne Dumbleton is Professor Emeritus and Former Dean of DePaul University School for New Learning. She is studying Professor Wangari Maathai as part of a book project on women as leaders for social change.