Wangari Maathai: Nobel Lecture, Oslo (2004)

Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmental and political activist gave this Nobel Lecture in Oslo, Norway after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

The video is an edited version of her speech. We recommend you read the full transcript which can be found here on the SoftKenya website with other famous speeches.

Wangari Maathai:
Majesties; Your Royal Highnesses; Honourable Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee; Excellencies; Ladies and Gentlemen

I stand before you and the world humbled by this recognition and uplifted by the honour of being the 2004 Nobel Peace Laureate.

As the first African woman to receive this prize, I accept it on behalf of the people of Kenya and Africa, and indeed the whole world.

So, together, we have planted over 30 million trees that provide fuel, food, shelter, and income to support their children’s education and household needs. The activity also creates employment and improves soils and watersheds. Through their involvement, women gain some degree of power over their lives, especially their social and economic position and relevance in the family. This work continues.

Initially, the work was difficult because historically our people have been persuaded to believe that because they are poor, they lack not only capital, but also knowledge and skills to address their challenges. Instead they are conditioned to believe that their solutions to their problems must come from ‘outside’.

Although initially the Green Belt Movement’s tree planting activities did not address issues of democracy and peace, it soon became clear that responsible governance of the environment was impossible without democratic space. Therefore, the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya. Citizens were mobilised to challenge widespread abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement. In Nairobi ‘s Uhuru Park, at Freedom Corner, and in many parts of the country, trees of peace were planted to demand the release of prisoners of conscience and a peaceful transition to democracy.

Through the Green Belt Movement, thousands of ordinary citizens were mobilized and empowered to take action and effect change. They learned to overcome fear and a sense of helplessness and moved to defend democratic rights.

In time, the tree also became a symbol of peace and conflict resolution, especially during the ethnic conflicts in Kenya when the Green Belt Movement used peace trees to reconcile disputing communities. During the ongoing re-writing of the constitution, similar trees of peace were planted in many parts of the country to promote a culture of peace. Using trees as a symbol of peace is in keeping with a widespread African tradition. For example in my own community, the man, the elders carried a staff from a tree called thigi. Whenever there were disputing sides, that staff was placed between them, and as soon as the elders placed that thege that staff between them, they stepped back, stopped fighting and went to seek the reconciliation. Many African communities have this heritage and tradition.

Such practises are part of an extensive cultural heritage, which contributes both to the conservation of habitats and to cultures of peace. With the destruction of these cultures and the introduction of new values, local biodiversity is no longer valued and protected and as a result, it is quickly degraded and disappears. For this reason, the Green Belt Movement explores the concept of cultural biodiversity, especially with respect to indigenous trees and medicinal plants.

As we progressively understood the causes of environmental degradation, we saw the need for good governance. Indeed, the state of any county’s environment is a reflection of the kind of governance in place, and without good governance there can be no peace. Many countries, which have poor governance systems, are also likely to have conflicts and poor laws protecting the environment.

In the year 2002, the courage, resilience, patience and commitment of members of the Green Belt Movement, other civil society organizations, and the Kenyan public culminated in the peaceful transition to a democratic government and laid the foundation for a more stable society.

Excellencies, friends, ladies and gentlemen, it is 30 years since we started this work. Activities that devastate the environment and societies continue unabated. Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own – indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life, with which we have shared our evolutionary process.

As I conclude I reflect on my childhood experience when I would visit a stream next to our home to fetch water for my mother. I would drink water straight from the stream. Playing among the arrowroot leaves I tried in vain to pick up the strands of frogs’ eggs, believing they were beads. But every time I put my little fingers under them they would break. Later, I saw thousands of tadpoles: black, energetic and wriggling through the clear water against the background of the brown earth. This is the world I inherited from my parents.

Today, over 50 years later, the stream has dried up, women walk long distances for water, which is not always clean, and children will never know what they have lost. The challenge is to restore the home of the tadpoles and give back to our children a world of beauty and wonder.

Thank you very much.




Severn Cullis-Suzuki: The Girl Who Silenced the World

Severn Cullis-Suzuki is a Canadian environmental activist, speaker, television host and author. In school she founded an environmental group called ECO. Aged just 12, she spoke at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, a major UN conference with over 108 heads of state and 170 governments attending.

The transcript is from the Schools for a Sustainable Future website, SFSF.com.au, and has been edited.

Severn Cullis-Suzuki: : Hello, I’m Severn Suzuki speaking for E.C.O. – The Environmental Children’s Organization.

We are a group of twelve and thirteen-year-olds trying to make a difference: Vanessa Suttie, Morgan Geisler, Michelle Quigg and me. We’ve raised all the money to come here ourselves, to come five thousand miles to tell you adults you must change your ways.

Coming here today, I have no hidden agenda. I am fighting for my future.

Losing my future is not like losing an election or a few points on the stock market. I am here to speak for all generations to come.

I am here to speak, speak on behalf of the starving children around the world whose cries go unheard.

I am here to speak for the countless animals dying across this planet because they have nowhere left to go.

I am afraid to go out in the sun now because of the holes in our ozone. I am afraid to breathe the air because I don’t know what chemicals are in it.

I used to go, I used to go fishing in Vancouver, my home, with my dad until just a few years ago we found the fish full of cancers. And now we hear of animals and plants going extinct every day — vanishing forever.

In my life, I have dreamt of seeing the great herds of wild animals, jungles and rainforests full of birds and butterflies, but now I wonder if they will even exist for my children to see.

Did you have to worry of these little things when you were my age?

All this is happening before our eyes and yet we act as if we have all the time we want and all the solutions. I’m only a child and I don’t have all the solutions, but I don’t – I want you to realize, neither do you!

  • You don’t know how to fix the holes in our ozone layer.
  • You don’t know how to bring the salmon back up a dead stream.
  • You don’t know how to bring back an animal now extinct.
  • And you can’t bring back the forests that once grew where there is now a desert.

If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!

Here, you may be delegates of your governments, business people, organisers, reporters or politicians – but really you are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles – and all of you are someone’s child.

I’m only a child yet I know we are all part of a family, five billion strong, in fact, 30 million species strong and borders and governments will never change that.

I’m only a child yet I know we are all in this together and should act as one single world towards one single goal.

In, In my anger, I am not blind, and in my fear, I am not afraid of telling the world how I feel.

In my country, we make so much waste, we buy and throw away, buy and throw away, buy and throw away, and yet northern countries will not share with the needy. Even when we have more than enough, we are afraid to share, we are afraid to let go of some of our wealth.

In Canada, we live the privileged life, with plenty of food, water and shelter. We have watches, bicycles, computers and television sets. The list could go on for two days.

Two days ago here in Brazil, we were shocked when we spent time with some children living on the streets. This is what one child told us: “I wish I was rich. And if I were, I would give all the street children food, clothes, medicines, shelter, love, and affection.”

If a child on the street who has nothing, is willing to share, why are we who have everything still so greedy?

I can’t stop thinking that these are children my own age, that it makes a tremendous difference where you are born, that I could be one of those children living in the favelas of Rio; I could be a child starving in Somalia; or a victim of war in the Middle East, or a beggar in India.

I am only a child yet I know if all the money spent on war was spent on finding environmental answers, ending poverty, and finding treaties, what a wonderful place this earth would be!

At school, even in kindergarten, you teach us how to behave in the world. You teach us:

  • to not to fight with others,
  • to work things out,
  • to respect others,
  • to clean up our mess,
  • not to hurt other creatures
  • to share – not be greedy.

Then why do you go out and do, ah, do the things you tell us not to do?

Do not forget why you’re attending these conferences, who you’re doing this for — we are your own children. You are deciding what kind of a world we are growing up in.

Parents should be able to comfort their children by saying “Everything’s going to be alright, it’s not the end of the world, and we’re doing the best we can.”

But I don’t think you can say that to us anymore. Are we even on your list of priorities? My dad always says “You are what you do, not what you say.”

Well, what you do makes me cry at night. You grown-ups say you love us. But I challenge you, please make your actions reflect your words. Thank you.