Wanjira Mathai, chair of the Wangari Maathai Foundation. GLF/Handout

Values-based youth leadership education key to environmental sustainability: Wangari Maathai Foundation chair

Nurturing courage

NAIROBI (Landscape News) – Forest cover in Kenya is declining at an alarming rate, mainly due to poor forest governance and the mismanagement of resources, challenges that can be overcome by instilling future leaders with positive values, according to the daughter of environmental activist and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai.

Wanjira Mathai, chair of the Wangari Maathai Foundation (WMF), carries on the legacy of her mother, who founded the Green Belt Movement (GBM), through efforts to thwart corruption by inspiring courageous leadership.

Maathai launched the movement in 1977 to plant trees and improve livelihoods, putting herself at great personal risk to save green public spaces, like Karura Forest and Uhuru Park in Nairobi. Through her work, she inspired millions of trees to be planted in Kenya, and throughout Africa, slowing deforestation and restoring landscapes across the continent. In 2006, two years after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, she collaborated with UN Environment to inspire the planting of a billion trees worldwide.

Wanjira Mathai, who will speak at the Global Landscapes Forum at UN Environment headquarters in Nairobi on Aug. 29-30, also sits on the boards of the GBM and World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Through her work, she leads the development of “innovative training programs for children and youth that nurture courage, leadership, and integrity.”

She shared her views in the following interview.

Q: How did you get into forestry conservation?

A: It was through the work of the Green Belt Movement where I worked as the international liaison director, leading fundraising and managing international affairs. In the process of doing that work, I understood more profoundly how much people’s livelihoods, food, fuel and water were connected to the health of the forest environment. The Green Belt Movement mobilizes communities to plant trees and for conservation, but also much more than that – also for livelihoods and food security. So I see forest conservation from a multifaceted perspective.

Q: What role have women played in the movement?

A: Women responded most strongly to the call for people to plant trees with the GBM. Often they are the ones who till the land and do the farming, so for them it was natural. If it has anything to do with the land-use at the household level, women are at the forefront. Later, men joined in, mainly because by then it had become a viable economic opportunity, but women were in the front lines from very early on.

Q: In all the years you have worked with the GBM what major changes have you seen take place?

A: After 40 years of GBM’s work, we can confidently say that the environmental consciousness of Kenyans today is much higher than it has ever been. People now have an understanding, an acknowledgment, and appreciation for the environment in a way that they didn’t in the 1980s and 1990s. Wangari Maathai and the Nobel Peace Prize brought a lot of attention to Kenya and the environment.

GBM can also be proud of its advocacy legacy. For many years GBM led campaigns to protect urban green spaces and today, thanks for this work, some of the really important green spaces exist thanks to GBM – Uhuru Park, Karura Forest and Jivanjee Gardens to name a few. I think it is a great tribute to their work, but also the persistence and commitment to the cause. It took tremendous patience, persistence and commitment to get this work done.

Tree planting today, especially in rural areas, is very common. People mark their boundaries with trees, which is a signature of GBM activity. A lot of that success is attributed to the work of the Green Belt Movement.

Q: What do you think are the main challenges Kenya is facing in terms of sustainable development, especially with regard to matters concerning landscape degradation?

A: Kenya has challenges, yes, but they are not intractable.   I am focusing my work on leadership education for children and youth through the Wangari Maathai Foundation (WMF). The Foundation, set up two years ago, works to leverage the lessons of Wangari Maathai’s life and work– to see what we can learn about who she was, why she did what she did, and to inspire courageous leadership and engender more of the values that guided her work, leading to the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.

The East Africa Institute conducted a youth survey in 2015 that told us that about 80 percent of our population is under the age of 35. We have an extremely youthful population into whose future everything will rest, including delivering agenda 2030. We have all these ambitious goals’ – Vision 2030, Big Four Agenda – but are they really going to be fulfilled by these under 35s? What are their mind-sets, what are their priorities? Who are their role models?

We also learned from the survey that youth in Kenya (and East Africa) are optimistic about Kenya’s future; they feel that corruption is a legitimate way of doing business, and a large percentage of them reported that they are afraid to stand up for what they believe in for fear of retribution. That’s why we chose to focus on building courageous leadership.   So, we have a somewhat fearful, but optimistic population poised to take us forward – are they ready?

When you look at Kenya today and scan the political, economic and social landscape, it is not difficult to see what challenges prevail. Nothing sums it up better than my favourite quote, attributed to Gus Speth, (James Gustave “Gus” Speth, founder of the World Resources Institute).

He said that he thought the greatest environmental challenges were ecosystem collapse, climate change, biodiversity loss, “I was wrong, the biggest environmental challenges are greed, selfishness and apathy.”  That’s spot on for Kenya too.

Q: How are you reaching out to young people?

A: The Wangari Maathai Foundation has three strategic priorities. One is the museum project, the Wangari Muta Maathai House, which will be a center for inspiration, reflection and action, and also the home of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.

The other project is “Wanakesho” which means (in Kiswahili) ” Children of Tomorrow,” which is where our leadership training for children is domiciled. We have identified eight core values that are part of Wangari Maathai’s legacy, including courage, commitment, persistence, resilience, stewardship, and resourcefulness, among others.   We have four pilot schools where this work will begin this year, starting with teacher training.

We are also setting up a fellowship program to work with young people – high school graduates. There are a lot of fellowship programs for career professionals or university students, but not much for high school graduates. We will target high school students and see if we can begin to mould some of their mind-sets and thinking and influence their sense of purpose and courage to lead. If we can create a network of Wangari Maathai Fellows who are proud of their association, hold each other accountable, and give them a powerful experience, then perhaps we can sprinkle them with a bit of that “gold dust.” 

Q: How important is it that the GLF will be taking place in Nairobi this year?

A: Having the GLF In Nairobi is important, especially now that Kenya is engaged in reclaiming her green spaces and restoring degraded landscapes. Never before have Kenyans been more attuned to the role of forests, riparian reserves, and green spaces as they are following the devastating floods that followed the last rainy season. We now all know they matter. We need to continue to highlight global landscapes and why they matter for all of us today.

Q: Why are you participating?

A: I’m excited about the potential for a new conversation around values that touches on natural resource management. We’ve got to inspire better leadership, and tackle the greed, selfishness and apathy that is destroying the building blocks for sustainable development. It’s destroying everything we know, whether forestry or anything else, it’s destroying our politics, our education, it’s destroying everything.

I am in Scandinavia now and I am inspired by the fact that here is a country that on a very basic level, it takes then 70-90 years to mature a tree. It takes us in Kenya 30. One generation sees one tree and we would see three mature in that same time, it is impossible to imagine that a country like Sweden or Finland, they are leading the world and we are buying paper from these parts of the world yet their trees take a hundred years pretty much.

How is it possible that we can’t get it together except for greed, apathy and selfishness?

I get so incensed when I think that three generations of trees we can be producing trees three times faster.

We are arguing that leadership is about emotional intelligence; it’s about values and has to be anchored in a set of values. You cannot possibly decide to rip your country apart for your personal benefit that ought to be unacceptable.

But that’s what I am excited about; it’s about leadership that for me is the heart of the matter.

Learn more at the Global Landscapes Forum. Wanjira Mathai speaks at a session about gender and rights on Aug. 30 at 2:00 p.m. local time in Nairobi (11:00 a.m. GMT).

Article tags

Africadegraded landscapeeducationGLFNairobi2018Green Belt MovementlandscapeNairobiNobel Peace PrizerestorationWangari MaathaiWangari Maathai FoundatioWanjira Mathaiyouth



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