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A Message from Professor Wangari Maathai

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"When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope"

THE intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that temperatures will rise by 1.8° to 4° C this century. A less stable climate will bring massive ecological and economic challenges. 

Already, we see that droughts, floods, hurricanes and heat waves are becoming more common. Will we watch as catastrophic disruption to Earth’s environment and its people occurs on an unimaginable scale? Or will we change course and work together to mitigate the effects of global warming? 

For the global South, and especially Africa, environmental issues are not a luxury. Arresting the world’s warming and protecting and restoring our natural systems are issues of life and death for much of the world’s population.

In its recent report forecasting the effects of global warming on Africa, the IPCC predicts that the volume in rivers will fall as temperatures rise, making it harder to access clean water.

Some regions will receive more rain, allowing cultivation of new crops. But others, especially in southern and western Africa, will become drier, fuelling desertification.

As rainfall patterns shift, the IPCC estimates that by 2100, crop revenues could fall by 90 per cent, devastating Africa’s small-scale farmers. Climate change will also create new malaria zones, affecting 80 million people.

Resource scarcity, made worse by global warming, will cause conflicts to flare up. We see this in Darfur, where unscrupulous leaders have used clashes over resources to stir up massive violence. 

Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions are negligible compared to the industrialised world’s, and those of the emerging economic giants of China and India, yet those of us living in the southern hemisphere are likely to be most affected by global warming.

For this reason, I and many others are challenging the leaders and citizens of industrialised countries, and in fact, all nations, to reduce energy consumption and to move beyond fossil fuels; to cut greenhouse gas emissions from all sources; and to adopt policies so that corporations operate more responsibly and individuals can live more sustainably on the planet.

As major polluters, industrialised countries have a moral responsibility to assist Africa and the rest of the developing economies by making available technology affordable to reduce our vulnerability and increase our capacity to adapt to global warming, including through the use of alternative and renewable sources of energy. 

Natural resources provide a buffer against the effects of climate change. While technological advances and developing alternative sources of energy are essential, we cannot forget to conserve and act to restore what we have.

One of the most important policy measures is to prioritise protection and rehabilitation of standing forests — such as those in Amazonia and Indonesia, the Boreal region and the Congo Basin.

These forests are the ecosystems that make life possible for numerous species, including our own. They are also Earth’s lungs, absorbing enormous quantities of carbon dioxide and holding significant stores of carbon in their soils. We have a global obligation to safeguard them. 

We also must make concerted efforts to end unsustainable logging, and support initiatives, like reforestation programmes, through which poor people can secure a livelihood by protecting, not destroying, their environment.

Well-managed, participatory tree-planting programmes that serve as carbon offsets as well as delivering livelihood benefits to local communities, are an important means to support mitigation efforts in southern countries. 

Such activities, of course, do not provide an excuse for industrialised countries’ greenhouse gas emissions. All countries both in the North and South must act to deal with the negative impacts.

But industrialised countries should enable countries with developing economies to participate in the carbon market and to develop industry based on renewable energy sources. This is a case of environmental justice that ought to be addressed more responsibly by all.

Although the challenges posed by global warming are enormous, we can rise to them. At last year’s UN climate meeting in Nairobi, the Green Belt Movement, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) launched the Billion Tree Campaign.
The campaign inspired millions across the planet. Pledges came in from individuals, NGOs, businesses, governments, communities and associations in all regions. And in a year, we met our goal: planting a billion trees worldwide.

Prof Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is the Goodwill Ambassador for the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem.

“What I have learned over the years 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.”