Wangari Maathai

While working at the United Nations, my first job as a reporter, I was eager to please. As I was working on a story about African governments selling land to private investors, Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai was coming to the U.N. to talk about her efforts on how she has helped women restore the forest without private investment in her home country of Kenya, and across the world. The Green Belt Movement she started help revolutionize the way economists think about developing nations prosper, and she was at the forefront of showing other leaders how to accomplish this.

The day she came to the U.N. a press conference was held but no individual interviews were scheduled. At the time you can tell she was aging but her mind was still sharp. When the conference was older I rushed up to the stage and calmly asked for an interview. I could not believe she said yes. She asked to do it up the stairs where there was more space, she was walking gingerly while I was behind her but the whole time she made sure I was there. When we got to the top I started the interview and literally the entire room was silent. It was just me, my recorder, and one of the most respected women in the world. All the reporters were behind us listening clearly pissed it was not them talking to her but wanted to stay to hear what she had to say. The whole thing lasted about five minutes and she was great the entire time, thoughtfully thinking about her answers to every single one of my questions. At the end I remember hearing another reporter say “she gave him great quotes.” While my time at the U.N. was short this was definitely one of the biggest highlights.

The story I wrote is below. Please read it and realize that one person can make a big difference.

Farming for Peace

As food prices continue to soar, countries from around the world began to buy land in parts of Africa where the ground is fertile for agricultural development. Today, 50 million hectares (more than twice the size of England) have already been bought or are currently being negotiated for, and these numbers continue to rise.

On the African continent, one out of every three people suffers from malnourishment. African governments believe selling land to agribusinesses is a way to help those living in poverty and feed the people who are unable to get food. Leaders on the continent have said these investments are crucial to improve the continents low agricultural productivity. To make these deals possible, governments offer agribusinesses (who are afraid of corruption and lack of infrastructure within the countries) lucrative deals which minimize the risk of losing their investment.

According to the World Bank, three quarters of Ethiopia’s arable land is not being used to farm. Experts argue that if foreign investors are able to finance projects, this land can produce vast amounts of needed food. But farmers employed by these corporations get paid just 75 cents a day and Ethiopian farmers are not allowed to own land. Since 2007, 3 million hectares of land has been sold, which amounts to 4 percent of the country.
Critics argue there are other policies governments can enact that help people without selling land. 2004 Nobel Peace laureate Wangaari Maathai told MediaGlobal that “governments always give excuses that they need revenue to improve the quality of life of the very people that complain land is being degraded.” Most land considered to be owned by the people has no legal binding, and there are no formal boundaries showing who owns what. When governments give permission to agro business to farm on the land, individuals feel their rights are being violated and claim they own the land which is being sold.

Agro businesses often use chemicals that can seriously damage the land and can take hundreds of years to revitalize. While the government argues the land is not being used, researchers say some of the land is used for livestock or purposely left unused to prevent nutrient depletion and erosion.
The Green Belt Movement, started by Maathai, works with local farmers, governments, and universities to cultivate land and empower the people who live on it. A method being used to involve individuals is by drawing maps that determine land barriers between the farms. Once those borders are agreed to, governments are able to implement policies that allow more food to be grown.

Maathai’s programs have inspired others around the world. By empowering local farmers, governments do not have to sell land because those farmers are able to accomplish what agro businesses promise to do. One such program is taking place in Rwanda.

Being a landlocked state, local farming is very important to Rwanda’s people and economy. Much of the farming is done by individuals who own half a hectare of land or less, barely enough to feed their families, let alone make a profit. Rwanda’s Intensification Program gives small farmers access to advanced seeds and fertilizers making it easier to grow food. The government helps organize and gives financial support to groups of farmers. This ensures certain foods are being grown, and allows the farmers to make a profit by combining the sales of their crops.

When the program started in 2007, just 3.5 percent of Rwanda’s budget was allocated toward agriculture, but today it has more than doubled. In the past three years, the use of maize, wheat, and beans in Rwanda increased almost tenfold, from 28,788 hectares to 254,000. This growth made Rwanda food secure and allowed the country to export its surpluses.

Small investment in local farming, like in Rwanda, act as catalysts to greater economic prosperity. In order to avoid the worst case scenario, policies regarding agriculture will have to change. As Maathai put it: “An economic system that allows some regions to be so rich and others to be so poor, especially when the poor are in resource rich regions, is extremely unfair. It is unsustainable and eventually it could undermine peace.”


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