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Environment

Nature, Nurture and Culture

A Nobel Peace laureate says cultural revival may be the only thing that stands between the conservation or destruction of the environment.
Mount Kenya is a World Heritage Site. The equator passes right on its top, and it has a unique habitat and heritage. Because it is a glacier-topped mountain, it is the source of many of Kenya's rivers. Now, partly because of climate change and partly because of logging and encroachment through cultivation of crops, the glaciers are melting. Many of the rivers flowing from Mount Kenya have either dried up or become very low. Its biological diversity is threatened as the forests fall.

"What shall we do to conserve this forest?" I asked myself.

As I tried to encourage women and the African people in general to understand the need to conserve the environment, I discovered how crucial it is to return constantly to our cultural heritage. Mount Kenya used to be a holy mountain for my people, the Kikuyus. They believed that their God dwelled on the mountain and that everything good – the rains, clean drinking water – flowed from it. As long as they saw the clouds (the mountain is a very shy mountain, usually hiding behind clouds), they knew they would get rain.

And then the missionaries came. With all due respect to the missionaries (they are the ones who really taught me), in their wisdom, or lack of it, they said, "God does not dwell on Mount Kenya. God dwells in heaven."

We have been looking for heaven, but we have not found it. Men and women have gone to the moon and back and have not seen heaven. Heaven is not above us: it is right here, right now.

So the Kikuyu people were not wrong when they said that God dwelled on the mountain, because if God is omnipresent, as theology tells us, then God is on Mount Kenya too. If believing that God is on Mount Kenya is what helps people conserve their mountain, I say that's okay. If people still believed this, they would not have allowed illegal logging or clear-cutting of the forests.

After working with different Kenyan communities for more than two decades, the Green Belt Movement (GBM), which I led until joining the new Kenyan government in January 2003, also concluded that culture should be incorporated into any development paradigm that has at its heart the welfare of the people. The Green Belt Movement's mission is mobilizing community consciousness for self-determination, equity, improved livelihood security and environmental conservation – using trees as the entry point. When we began, we believed that all that was needed was to teach people how to plant trees and make connections between their own problems and their degraded environment.

But in the course of struggles to realize GBM's mission and vision, we realized that some of the communities had lost aspects of their culture which had actually facilitated the conservation of the beautiful environment the first European explorers and missionaries recorded in their diaries and textbooks.

Culture is an important part of humanity. Development agencies, religious leaders and academic institutions are increasingly recognizing its central role in the political, economic and social life of communities. A focus on culture is important to environmentalists as well as to traditional communities. Too often, when we talk about conservation, we don't think about culture. But we human beings have evolved in the environment in which we find ourselves. For every one of us, wherever we were, the environment shaped us: it shaped our values; it shaped our bodies; it shaped our religion. It really defined who we are and how we see ourselves.

Cultural revival might be the only thing that stands between the conservation or destruction of the environment, the only way to perpetuate the knowledge and wisdom inherited from the past, necessary for the survival of future generations. A new attitude toward nature provides space for a new attitude toward culture and the role it plays in sustainable development: an attitude based on a new understanding – that self-identity, self-respect, morality and spirituality play a major role in the life of a community and its capacity to take steps that benefit it and ensure its survival.

Until the arrival of the Europeans, communities had looked to nature for inspiration, food, beauty and spirituality. They pursued a lifestyle that was sustainable and that gave them a good quality of life. It was a life without salt, soap, cooking fat, spices, soft drinks, daily meat and other acquisitions that have accompanied a rise in the "diseases of the affluent."

Communities that have not yet undergone industrialization have a close connection with the physical environment, which they often treat with reverence. Because they have not yet commercialized their lifestyle and their relation with natural resources, their habitats are rich with local biological diversity, both plant and animal.

However, these are the very habitats that are most at threat from globalisation, commercialisation, privatization and the piracy of biological materials found in them. This global threat is causing communities to lose their rights to the resources they have preserved throughout the ages as part of their cultural heritage. These communities are persuaded to consider their relationship with nature primitive, worthless and an obstacle to development and progress in an age of advanced technology and information flow.

During the long, dark decades of imperialism and colonialism from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, the British, Belgian, Italian, French and German governments told African societies that they were backward. They told us that our religious systems were sinful, our agricultural practices inefficient, our tribal systems of governing irrelevant, and our cultural norms barbaric, irreligious and savage. This also happened with the Aborigines in Australia, the Native Americans in North America and the native peoples of Amazonia.

Of course, some of what happened, and continues to happen, in Africa was bad and remains so. Africans were involved in the slave trade; women are still genitally mutilated; Africans are still killing Africans because they belong to different religions or ethnic groups. Nonetheless, I for one am not content to thank God for the arrival of "civilization" from Europe, because I know from what my grandparents told me that much of what went on in Africa before colonialism was good.

There was some degree of accountability to people from their leaders. People were able to feed themselves. They carried their history – their cultural practices, their stories and their sense of the world around them – in their oral traditions, and that tradition was rich and meaningful. Above all, they lived with other creatures and the natural environment in harmony, and they protected that world.

Agriculture, democracy, heritage, and ecology are all dimensions and functions of culture. Agriculture is the way we deal with seeds, crops, harvesting, and processing and eating. One result of colonialism was the loss of indigenous food crops such as millet, sorghum, arrowroot, yam and green vegetables, as well as livestock and wildlife. Like culture itself, the possession of cattle as a sign of wealth or the growing of one's own food were trivialized by colonizers as indicators of a primitive mode of living. Loss of indigenous food and the methods to grow it have contributed to food insecurity at the household level and diminishment of local biological diversity.

People without culture feel insecure and are obsessed with the acquisition of material things, which give them a temporary security that itself is a delusional bulwark against future insecurity. Without culture, a community loses self-awareness and guidance, and grows weak and vulnerable. It disintegrates from within as it suffers a lack of identity, dignity, self-respect and a sense of destiny.

By the end of the civic and environmental seminars organized by the Green Belt Movement, participants feel the time has come for them to hold up their own mirror and find out who they are. This is why we call the seminars kwimenya (self-knowledge). Until then, participants have looked through someone else's mirror – the mirror of the missionaries or their teachers or the colonial authorities who have told them who they are and who write and speak about them – at their own cracked reflections. They have seen only a distorted image, if they have seen themselves at all!

There is enormous relief and great anger and sadness when people realize that without a culture not only is one a slave, but one has actually collaborated with the slave trader, and that the consequences are long-lasting. Communities without their own culture, who are already disinherited, cannot protect their environment from immediate destruction or preserve it for future generations. Since they are disinherited, they have nothing to pass on.

A new appreciation of culture can give traditional communities a chance, quite literally, to rediscover themselves, and to revalue and reclaim their culture. This is no trivial matter of reviving pottery or dancing, or whatever limited ideas of indigenous culture some Westerners may still have.

Of course, no one culture is applicable to all human beings who wish to retain their self-respect and dignity; none can satisfy all communities. Humanity needs to find beauty in its diversity of cultures and accept that there will be many languages, religions, attires, dances, songs, symbols, festivals and traditions. This diversity should be seen as a universal heritage of humankind.

Cultural liberation will only come when the minds of the people are set free and they can protect themselves from colonialism of the mind. Only that type of freedom will allow them to reclaim their identity, self-respect and destiny. Only when communities recapture the positive aspects of their culture will people relearn how to love themselves and what is theirs. Only then will they really appreciate their country and the need to protect its natural beauty and wealth. And only then will they have an understanding of the future and of generations to come.
Wangari Maathai is Kenya's Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife. Winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, she is the founder of Kenya's Green Belt Movement.
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