Wanjira Mathai

Fasten green belts on journey to sustainability

Wanjira Mathai of the World Resources Institute discusses the challenges of sustainable development. Envisioning a more resilient future requires action today aimed at establishing harmony between human development and nature. Civil society has shown valuable examples of effective partnerships which connect communities to their natural surroundings, particularly in Africa, where the Green Belt Movement has emerged. Without such connections, sustainability, such as that proposed by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) remains abstract.

Thursday 25.02.2021

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This was the first Kapuscinski Lecture ever held in Latin America, hosted by the Instituto de Ecología (INECOL) in Xalapa, Mexico. This was a relevant event on three different levels. First, it established he international connections over environment and development concerns with global organisms such as the European Commission and the UNDP. Inequities still grow between rich and poor areas, and it remains urgent to put these inequities at the center of  green belts rights. Envisioning a more resilient future requires action today aimed at establishing harmony between human development and nature. This is especially significant within the framework of climate change where investing in nature really matters. This Kapuscinski Lecture promoted civil society integration with academia and government with focus on effective partnerships for empathetic development characterized by harmony and connections between human activities and nature. This human-nature empathy highlights the importance of  “Life on Land” (SDG 15) as a central element of the whole 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Ecosystem integrity is, in fact, the basis of this vision aimed at preserving the life support system in the biosphere. Wanjira Mathai showed in her lecture that Greenbelts coherently connect ecosystem integrity with social integration. She argued that organizations must address food systems, climate change, gender equality amongst other issues while reinforcing their commitments to prest the “earth’s lungs” through Green Belts.

Second, the national impact of the conference was significant as it raised a subject that touches environmental sensitivities in Mexico. People here are already aware of the urgency to conserve environmental resources. There is nothing wrong with the land, as Wanjira stated, but people must start restoring landscapes and creating belts of green trees, or monitoring water amongst other initiatives.Agency to start or continue any type of movement to invest in nature-base development solutions in Mexico is the key to sustainability.

Third, the seed of Wanjira´s talk impacted an active and growing socioenvironmental community in Xalapa. Wanjira mentioned how she was fascinated to know about and meet the environmental network in Central Veracruz. We are building our future. Civil society has shown valuable examples of effective partnerships which connect communities to their natural surroundings, particularly in Africa, where the Green Belt Movement has emerged. Without such connections, sustainability, such as that proposed by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) remains abstract. The exchange between Wanjira and local environmental activists grounded the Kapuscinski initiative in community-oriented and evidence-based discussions.

  • As for the lecture itself, Wanjira focused on four main responses in her answer to the question, What does it mean to “tightening our green belts” for a sustainabile future? Improve food security.- Ask ourselves: “How do we produce food?” This is an important part of how we tighten our belts. Increasing productivity is a really important part of it. 80% of the food is produced by small scale farmers, and from this 70% are women. We must ensure sustainable livelihoods for small farmers.
  • We have to protect our nature, the green around us, but particularly the three lungs of the planet: the Amazon, the Congo Forest, and Bongo Forest in Southeast Asia. We have to restore. Restoration movements represent “once in a lifetime opportunities” for us to restore landscapes. African has initiatives to restore landscapes to their previous productivity. We have to put as much vegetation as we can into the land to fight carbon emissions. There are so many incredible movements that are restoring the world and their green belts through restoration.
  • Ensure Gender equality. The Green-belt movement began through activities organized by women. Women planted trees on their property to protect urban sustainability. Women nurtured the movement and expanded it. Gender equality is a key characteristic of sustainability which must be addressed.
  • We must recycled materials. We have to revisit, reintroduce and reimagine wonderful elements of knowledge, especially from indigenous traditional knowledge. 40% of carbon emission comes from how we use products. Only 20% of all that we produce goes to recycling, the 80% is waste and this planet cannot sustain that much waste.

Together, we can and will unify to secure a more sustainable future.

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Wanjira Mathai is Vice president and Regional Director for Africa at the World Resources Institute. Previously served as Sr. Partnership Advisor, Strategy and Advocacy at wPOWER – Partnership on Women’s Entrepreneurship in Renewables and WRI’s Senior Advisor to the Global Restoration Initiative. She is the current chairperson of the Wangari Maathai Foundation and the former Chairperson of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. She sits on the Boards of the Wangari Maathai Institute, and the World Agroforestry Agency (ICRAF). She is an advisory council member of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, co-chair of the Global Restoration Council, and a member of the Earth Charter International Council. Honored to be one of a few Six Seconds EQ Practitioners in Kenya and was one of the 100 Most Influential Africans in 2018. She holds degrees from Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health and Goizueta School of Business.

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