Let’s take a closer look at last year’s Nobel Peace Prize. It was awarded to Wangari Maathai, a 64-year-old woman from Kenya, and I admit to being suspicious of the claims made on her behalf. Perhaps an independent-minded reporter can investigate them. We are told that she founded something called the Green Belt Movement in Nairobi in 1977, enlisting poor women to plant millions of trees to combat deforestation. Fuel for cooking would be replenished.
In newspaper story after newspaper story, we were told that these ladies succeeded in planting 30 million trees over three decades. (That is not many by the standards of the U.S. forest industry, which planted 720 million trees in 1997.) We are told that Mrs. Maathai gave “jobs” to 10,000 women, who were able to make money by transferring seedlings from nurseries into the ground and then supervising their growth. She was “beaten and jailed during the regime of President Moi.” (To have been “beaten and jailed during the regime of” is a precondition for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize at all, but maybe it is true.)
Journalists all used the same press releases and clich lone voice, holistic approach, sustainable development, resisting Western stereotypes, confronting the powerful, etc. The rather pathetic Norwegian committee chairman, a certain Prof. Mjoes, said without irony: “She thinks globally and acts locally.”
The background to the story is partly believable. In Kenya and in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, deforestation and denudation of the landscape is proceeding apace. That I do believe. Further, we are told that the former president, Daniel arap Moi (always singled out among African tyrants for having been “corrupt,” as though others were not), allowed his cronies to take possession of “public lands,” thereby profiting. For the sake of argument I am prepared to accept that, too. It would be par for the course in post-colonial Africa.
With a growing population, public lands will become denuded, for reasons that were explained in a famous paper, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Published in Science in 1968, it argued that resources owned in common are always overexploited unless population is restricted. You haul the wood into your hut—privatize it—before someone else does. The right to the wood is undefined so you had better grab it quickly. Everyone has the same incentive. Privatizing is the only rational solution. That (it seems) was what Moi’s cronies were doing, admittedly by a procedure that was undemocratic.
Along comes Mrs. Maathai, Bella Abzug’s one-time friend. And here is the unbelievable part. In a worshipful article in the New York Times, Marc Lacey wrote:
Many women wondered why Dr. Maathai was so devoted to saving trees.
I was wondering the same thing. She had earlier told a Times reporter: “We’re trying to empower people, to let them identify their mistakes, to show them they can build, or destroy the environment.’”
Something is wrong there. Who paid for those nurseries? There were 6,000 of them in Kenya alone according to a piece of printed devotion by Frances Moore Lappe in the International Herald Tribune. How to decide which women get paid for which trees (and again, where does the money come from)? Trees take years to grow. And to do this on public lands? It makes no sense. Has anyone heard of the “free-rider problem?” Anyone can come along at any time and say “that tree is my tree, and I’m going to cut it down right now.”
The whole thing looks like a deception that the Nobel committee fell for. And the media. Maathai’s background particularly aroused my suspicion. In her buttercup-yellow dresses, she advertises herself as All-African. But she has one degree from St. Scholastica College in Kansas, a Master’s from the University of Pittsburgh; a doctorate from Nairobi; she was a visiting scholar at the Yale School of Environmental Studies; she has a Doctor of Laws degree from Williams College; and lately she has been hobnobbing with the enviros at Dartmouth. She attended a university in Germany, too, and has won a Petra Kelly Award.
She is a creation of the academic world, the American academy in particular. All the confront-the-powerful talk is intended to disguise her university provenance. She has been the cat’s-paw of the American academy, and now the honoree of the Norwegian Academy. By chance I found out that her organization received a grant from the U.S. taxpayer-funded African Development Foundation, created by the U.S. Congress in 1985. I haven’t been able to determine how much the Green Belt Movement received, but the ADF says that grants to any group should not exceed $250,000. No doubt American universities have helped fatten Mrs. Maathai’s bank account.
I doubt whether she or her lady helpers ever planted a single tree. Lurking behind the press publicity has been the suggestion that the real goal of her movement was not so much tree-planting as preventing the privatization of public lands. If so, she is actually inflaming conflict. For it is the existence of communal lands that generates wars between adjacent groups and tribes. That is the tragedy of the commons—still underway in Africa.
BUT TRAGEDY SOON TURNED to comedy. Mrs. Maathai departed from the script, embarrassing her Western feminist puppeteers. We have heard of AIDS in Africa, right? Well, Mrs. Maathai said that the virus that is said to cause it was created by scientists “for biological warfare.” It was designed as a “tool to control Africans.”
Glum were the State Department functionaries, who had been eager to add to the chorus of praise. Mrs. Maathai was surely on the receiving end of rebukes from Dartmouth, Williams, and Yale. Placatingly, she said that she had intended “to promote an inquiring attitude.” Then she put her foot in it again. The virus was meant to “wipe out the black race,” she said.
How to cope with her indiscretion? The Washington Post showed the way. In Emily Wax’s admiring story, there was no mention at all of Mrs. Maathai’s AIDS absurdities. Nor was there in the International Herald Tribune, nor in the BBC’s report. The New York Times gave it a well-buried mention. Understandably, these organs did not want to let their readers know that this new African heroine, whose thoughts on the environment so closely matched theirs, was, in fact, a nut.
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