Kenya: Where Environmentalism Clashes with Authoritarianism

May 31, 1992|By LUCY KOMISAR

As the Earth Summit in Brazil, opening Wednesday, focuses attention on the environment, it might surprise Americans to learn that the "green" movement has taken root in developing countries. The difference there is that environmental activists are looked on as threats by dictators who fear that citizen organizations challenge their power.

A noted example is in Kenya, whose most popular political figure, environmentalist Wangari Maathai, is a target of dictator Daniel T. arap Moi. She presently faces government charges of "rumor mongering," and she was beaten unconscious by security forces during a protest to free political prisoners in March. Her story is a dramatic example of what happens when people who defend the environment clash with repressive governments. She was in New York last week on her way to Rio to participate in unofficial citizens group activities.

The setting is prototypical. In Kenya, as elsewhere in Africa, as trees are felled by people with no other fuel, rain forests are denuded, soil is eroded and crops diminish. The desert expands, bringing increased poverty and hunger.

Ms. Maathai, Kenya's first woman Ph.D. and first woman professor at the University of Nairobi, was a member of the National Council of Women of Kenya when she established the Green Belt Movement and, with international aid, set up 1,500 tree nurseries to provide seedlings for public and private lands. For every tree that survived for more than three months, the women who planted them got four U.S. cents.

After fifteen years, the project has resulted in 10 million new trees and income for 50,000 people. The movement has spread to a dozen African countries. In 1987, the Green Belt Movement was a winner of the United Nations Environmental Program Global 500 award.

But the Green Belt Movement threatened President Moi, who, forced by internal and external pressures to open the political system, now is in political trouble. Wangari Maathai's environmental work gave her a mass constituency.

"When you deal with movements at the grass roots level you are confronted with poverty, underdevelopment," she said in an interview last week. "You ask, 'Why do some people live in misery? Does it have to be like this?' and you realize that some people who present themselves as the friends of the people are really the enemies of the people. You can't just keep planting trees. You begin to plant a few ideas. When you confront them, that is when you are called subversive. Many people who do that have ended up in trouble."

She said she was in contact with the Chipko environmental movement in India, whose members have also been jailed.

Organized environmentalists turned out to be quite inconvenient for President Moi. He had arranged publicly-guaranteed loans to build a $200-million, 60-story office tower, the tallest in Africa, featuring a mammoth statue of himself, in the middle of Uhuru Park, the capital's largest green space, which is used largely by poor families. The building was to house the headquarters, newspaper and TV station of Mr. Moi's Kenya African National Union, then the country's only legal political party.

When Ms. Maathai organized opposition and filed a lawsuit against the building plan in 1989, the government denied her permission for a public demonstration, ordered the Green Belt Movement out of a state-owned building, and threatened to make the group illegal. He denounced her as "subversive."

Though Mr. Moi ignored his own citizens' views, he couldn't ignore the countries that gave him money. Western donors, particularly the United States and Japan, complained that Mr. Moi's projected borrowing exceeded an International Monetary Fund agreement and would run up the external debt to more than $400 million rather than the promised $100 million cap. They threatened aid cuts. So in 1990 Mr. Moi said he would put up only a 30-story tower. He didn't get that, because the investors from Japan, Denmark and Great Britain changed their minds.

In January, Ms. Maathai participated in a meeting in Nairobi at which the public was warned that Mr. Moi might be planning to derail the promised multi-party elections. She explained, "We heard a rumor that the president was planning to invite the army to take over the government and impose him on the people and that many people in the opposition would be arrested and eliminated. We asked the government to explain the rumors, to reassure the public they were not true. The government's reaction was to arrest us for inciting the public."

Two of the meeting's participants, a former vice-president and a former legislator, were seized immediately. Professor Maathai's house was surrounded by police, and she was arrested early the following morning and later let out on bail.

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