Nobel Peace Prize honorees: why not Vandana Shiva?

How can I complain when the Nobel committee saw fit to grace not one but three women, two from Liberia and one from Yemen, with the annual Peace prize?

After all, I’ve been working for years now to help the women of the two-thirds world gain more power and recognition, and these three women–the towering elder and current President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian peace activist familiar to many from the portrait of her in the powerful documentary film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”; and the young Yemeni human rights activist Tawakkol Karman– are certainly very deserving.

In fact, for our anthology African Women Writing Resistance: Contemporary Voices, my co-editors and I chose a quote from President Johnson Sirleaf as one of our epigraphs.  “Listening to the hopes and dreams of our people,” she said in a speech to the American Congress in 2006, “I recall the words of a Mozambican poet, who said ‘Our dream has the size of freedom.’ My people, like your people, believe deeply in freedom–and, in their dreams, they reach for the heavens.”

All three of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners have been channels for the hopes and dreams of their people, seeking political empowerment, social stability and security, and a sustainable path forward out of chaos (in Liberia’s case) and stagnation (in Yemen).  Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, has done a lot of good things for her people in her tenure as President, including many development programs aimed specifically at empowering women.  She has succeeded in gaining major debt relief from Liberia’s creditors, as well as brokering deals with big transnational energy companies to extract Liberia’s oil.

The other two Nobel Peace Prize honorees are equally deserving.

But I wish the Nobel Committee had been a bit more forward-thinking, and seen fit to honor another woman from the two-thirds world, Vandana Shiva of India.  A Ph.D. in particle physics, Shiva has been way ahead of her time for most of her life.

Instead of taking her place comfortably in the ranks of the Indian elite, Shiva became aware as a young woman of the danger of the industrialization of agriculture in India. She founded an organization, Navdanya, dedicated to saving heirloom seeds and preserving the knowledge of how to farm using ancient, local, sustainable methods.

When Monsanto began moving aggressively into the Indian market, luring in farmers with fertilizers and GMO seed on credit, Vandana Shiva was just about the only one who seemed to perceive the huge risk they were taking.  When these same farmers began committing suicide in droves as their reliance on foreign seed, fertilizer and pesticide drove them inexorably into debt, Vandana Shiva was the one who went to court to defend their lands and the rights of their widows.

She has been a veritable David fighting the Goliath of Monsanto for the past twenty years or so.  And in many cases, she has won!

While I also honor Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her younger co-awardees this year, I have to say that I would like to see them follow more in Vandana Shiva’s footsteps in the future.

Take Liberia, for instance, which in 2010 ranked 162 out of 169 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index.  Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is busy signing agreements with Chevron to extract the country’s oil, and hoping that some of the oil wealth will trickle down to ordinary Liberians, who are still hungry and poor today.

I’d like to respectfully suggest that instead of selling her soul to Big Oil, President Sirleaf follow the example of Vandana Shiva, and look to local, sustainable agriculture and manufacturing to build her country’s economy.

In a time of rapid climate change, it’s the countries and regions that are most self-sufficient and least plugged into the fossil-fuel-driven global economy that are going to be able to ride out the coming maelstrom.

It is clear that the corporate and political leaders of the world have no intention of acting decisively to stop global warming.  Last week’s major climate change story was about a report issued by a Washington D.C. think tank calling for more research into bioengineering of the climate, or “climate remediation.”  Specifically, they’re interested in getting the federal government to fund research into two major approaches:

  • Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR): CDR strategies aim to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, thereby addressing the root causes of climate change.
  • Solar Radiation Management (SRM): SRM strategies aim to counteract or mask the effect of rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere by increasing the amount of solar energy that is reflected back into space.
The first method involves working with plants that will absorb more carbon dioxide, or finding ways to sequester the CO2 we produce back underground.  One could hardly argue with an aggressive tree-planting and conservation campaign, particularly in light of the appalling reality of deforestation across the world today (see this very cool interactive map for the gruesome details).
The second method is the environmental equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s infamous Star Wars missile defense system: a sci-fi-esque plan to install giant mirrors in space, or to seed the atmosphere with reflective particles that will deflect solar rays from Earth.  One can just imagine the military industrial complex salivating at the thought of such a project, particularly at a time when there is so little support for continuing the wars that are this industry’s usual diet.
The problem, of course, is that both of these approaches miss the central most important fact about climate change, which is that nothing will stop it other than aggressive changes to our carbon-based lifestyle.
Will that happen?  Can it happen in time?  Maybe the Occupy Wall Street movement can bring the necessary energy to this fight, and I certainly hope they do.  Recently Bill McKibben’s, a leader in climate change activism, became one of the many larger national organizations seeking to ally themselves with this young juggernaut of political action.

Meanwhile, so-called “less developed nations” like Liberia and Yemen and all the rest should seriously re-evaluate their acceptance of this designation, which means rethinking the whole rationale behind Western-style “development.”  Development, Western-imperialist style, has benefited a few people mightily but brought suffering to the vast majority of people on Earth, especially those in the areas of greatest resource extraction, which are, paradoxically, the “less-developed” nations.

Now the time has come for us here in the heart of Empire to feel the blowback from our aggressive policies of development.  Climate change is upon us.  And in this new era, it is precisely those with the least reliance on oil, electricity and industrial agriculture that will have the best chance of adapting to the new realities of life on Earth.

President Johnson Sirleaf and all the other leaders of “less-developed nations” should stop and reconsider their friendships with the global corporate elite.  The urgent task now is to build resilient communities and economies based on the exchange and consumption of local resources–just like it was for the tens of thousands of years of human existence before the industrial revolution started us off on a different path.

It is people like Vandana Shiva, who are still in touch with older ways of living in harmony with the Earth, who may be able to lead us through the current crisis into a sustainable future.  Let us take heed while there’s still time.

Wangari Maathai’s Canopy of Hope: remembering a warrior woman for the planet and role model for us all

Kenyan Wangari Maathai, who died last night of ovarian cancer, was a woman who took everything she learned and used it for the benefit of her local community and the planetary community as a whole.

As a girl, she used to sit by a certain fig tree that grew near her family village.  Beside the fig tree a clear, sparkling stream flowed, planted with arrowroots and hopping with small frogs.  Her mother told her that this was a “tree of God,” which wasn’t to be harvested for firewood.

Later, Wangari realized that “there was a connection between the fig tree’s root system and the underground water reservoirs.  The roots burrowed deep into the ground, breaking through the rocks beneath the surface soil and diving into the underground water table.  The water traveled up along the roots until it hit a depression or weak place in the ground and fushed out as a spring.  Indeed, wherever these trees stood, there were likely to be streams.  The reverence the community had for the fig tree helped preserve the stream and the tadpoles that so captivated me.  The trees also held the soil together, reducing erosion and landslides.  In such ways, without conscious or deliberate effort, these cultural and spiritual practices contributed to the conservation of biodiversity” (Unbowed, 46).

Wangari came of age as the traditional wisdom of the village people was giving way before the onslaught of Western epistemologies.  A girl who excelled in her schooling, she educated by Catholic nuns, and was fortunate enough to be chosen for the so-called Kennedy airlift of 1960, under which the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation provided scholarships for promising young African students to study in America—the same program that brought Barack Obama’s father to the U.S. to study.

Wangari ended up at Mount St. Scholastica, a Benedictine women’s college in Kansas, where she majored in science, and she went on to earn a Master’s in biology at the University of Pittsburgh. She continued her studies in Germany, and in 1971 earned a Ph.D. in biology from the University College of Nairobi—the first women in East and Central Africa to earn a doctoral degree.

Like so many other highly educated women who join the workforce, Wangari experienced plenty of gender discrimination as she tried to advance her career. Frustrated with her lack of advancement within the university, she joined the National Council of Women of Kenya, which was a group of educated women who sought to improve the living conditions of all Kenyan women.

“We could either sit in an ivory tower wondering how so many people could be so poor and not be working to change their situation, or we could try to help them escape the vicious cycle they found themselves in,” she said.  “This was not a remote problem for us.  The rural areas were where our mothers and sisters still lived.  We owed it to them to do all we could” (124).

For Wangari, the problems were clear:

“The connection between the symptoms of environmental degradation and their causes—deforestation, devegetation, unsustainable agriculture and soil loss—were self-evident.  Something had to be done.  We could not just deal with the manifestations of the problems.  We had to get to the root causes of those problems.

“Now, it is one thing to understand the issues.  It is quite another to do something about them.  But I have always been interested in finding solutions.  This is, I believe, the result of my education as well as my time in America: to think of what can be done rather than worrying about what cannot.  I didn’t sit down and ask myself, ‘Now let me see, what shall I do?’ It just came to me: Why not plant trees?’ The trees would provide a supply of wood that would enable women to cook nutritious foods.  They would also have wood for fencing and fodder for cattle and goals.  The trees would offer shade for humans and animals, protect watersheds and bind the soil, and, if they were fruit trees, provide food.  They would also heal the land by bringing back birds and small animals and regenerate the vitality of the earth.

“That is how the Green Belt Movement began” (125).

 The Green Belt Movement mobilized thousands of ordinary women in Kenya to start tree nurseries, and to plant trees near their homes.  It also became a forest conservation movement, with Wangari leading women in protecting Kenya’s remaining forests against the loggers hired by giant transnational conglomerates.  She made plenty of enemies in the government when her agenda threw a wrench in their greedy plans, and she was often afraid for her life.  She was thrown in jail many times, and frequently confronted violence at the hands of police and goon squads.

 Through it all, she remained, as the title of her memoir suggests, UNBOWED. She would not be browbeaten into submission to authority.  She knew that her cause was not only righteous but right for Kenyans and for the planet she loved, and this gave her the courage to stand firm against intimidation.

Wangari’s activism cost her her marriage: her husband, a Kenyan Member of Parliament, divorced her after she earned her Ph.D. and became more financially successful.  She could have chosen the easy way and lived a very privileged, comfortable existence in Nairobi, if she had been willing to bow her head and put her husband’s needs and career before her own.  Instead, she went through a humiliating public divorce trial:

“It became clear that I was being turned into a sacrificial lamb.  Anybody who had a grudge against modern, educated and independent women was being given an opportunity to spit on me.  I decided to hold my head up high, put my shoulders back, and suffer with dignity: I would give every woman and girl reasons to be proud and never regret being educated, successful and talented.  ‘What I have,’ I told myself, ‘is something to celebrate and not to ridicule or dishonor’” (146).

The divorce trial ended, incredibly enough, with Wangari being sentenced to six months in prison for “contempt of court”; she was hauled off to prison without even having the time to say goodbye to her children. It was clearly an attempt to put this uppity woman in her place, but it did not work: Wangari would not be intimidated, and emerged from prison determined to put her talents to work for her people, come what might for herself personally.

Her Green Belt Movement became a model for sustainable, grassroots-driven development throughout Africa and beyond, which worked not only for environmental sustainability, but also for women’s rights, human rights and participatory democracy.  Wangari consistently provided an upright model of honest, steadfast leadership, leading by example in speaking truth to power and and refusing to be cowed.

“What I have learned over the years,” she said, “is that we must be patient, persistent and committed.  When we are planting trees sometimes people will say to me, “I don’t want to plant this tree, because it will not grow fast enough.” I have to keep reminding them that the trees they are cutting today were not planted by them, but by those who came before.  So they must plant the trees that will benefit communities in the future.  I remind them that like a seedling, with sun, good soil, and abundant rain, the roots of our future will bury themselves in the ground and a canopy of hope will reach into the sky” (289).

Wangari Maathai herself grew that “canopy of hope” for all of us.  May the seedlings she planted be nourished with care by those of us who aspire to walk in her footsteps, for all those who deserve a better world in the future here on our precious planetary home.

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