The Tree and the Gun – Wangari’s Dangerous Proposal

March 9, 2009

Speaking recently at a meeting of the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme, Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai made some troubling remarks.

Maathai won the Nobel prize for her work as an environmentalist – for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace” in the words of the Nobel Foundation, and winning the prize has been the springboard for her elevation to heroine status (at least in official circles) across the world. Since the award in 2004, Maathai has become a minister in the Kenyan government, while she hosted the November 2008 Global Greens conference in Nairobi, which brought together the elite of the world’s environmental campaigners.

Being a minister in Mwai Kibaki’s tainted Kenyan government is no indication of moral qualities. Yet Maathai has been insulated from criticism, becoming famous for her tree-planting efforts across Africa. Although such campaigns are hardly a solution to either climate change or desertification, they are worthy enough, and harmless.

But Maathai’s words before UNEP were anything but harmless. “Imagine all soldiers marching for the planet” she began. “While the armies of the world are waiting to fight an enemy that comes with a gun, we have another enemy, an unseen enemy, an enemy that is destroying our environment. The enemy that takes away our topsoil, takes away our waters, destroys our forests, destroys the air we breathe, clears the forest.”

So far, so benign. But what she then said was less so.

Wangari went on to propose a vision of military-environmentalist harmony. As she put it, “imagine how wonderful it would be if every soldier on this planet started seeing himself and herself as a soldier for the planet holding a gun on one side and a tree seedling on the other.

There is something intensely sinister about this language, which has barely registered in the media, yet UNEP reported Maathai’s words as if they were proud to support and, perhaps, implement them. Yet we already have militaries and saplings coexisting quite happily across the world, with devastating consequences for human communities. We’ve seen it in Colombia, where 270,000 people were kicked off their land in 2008 to make way for biofuels plantations or cocaine production. Or in Indonesia, where the rainforest is being ripped up, peat bogs drained and palm oil plantations developed.

Associating military forces with mass environmental campaigns is shockingly naive, at best. At worst, Maathai’s suggestions are liable to lead to serial human rights abuses. National armies are simply not going to mutate from being the enemies of small producers and indigenous peoples where they are obstacles to lucrative commodity production to their smiling partners when climate change is at stake.

UNEP gives us a clue with the examples it gives of countries that have already obeyed Maathai’s call to mobilize state power behind treeplanting campaigns.

“So far,” it reads, “the roll of honour of the countries where the biggest number of trees have been planted is headed by Ethiopia (700 million trees), Mexico (470 million trees) and Turkey (400 million trees).”

The “roll of honour” includes three world champion human rights abusers.

Is this the way that the United Nations wants to promote genuinely important sustainability projects in the developing world? Let’s hope not.

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