From: Edith M. Lederer, Associated Press
Published May 18, 2005 12:00 AM

Nobel Winner Maathai Urges World Leaders to Plant More Trees

UNITED NATIONS — Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai challenged government leaders and powerful elites Tuesday to get their hands dirty and plant trees to stop the alarming destruction and degradation of forests.

The 2004 Nobel laureate said there's been far too much talk about the problem and very little action.

"Elites in our countries have to learn to dirty their hands," she said. "They have to touch the soil because trees grow in the soil. We haven't developed to the extent where trees grow anywhere except in the soil, so we have to dig the soil and dig the holes and plant the trees and water them and nurture them."

Maathai spoke at a press conference after addressing the U.N. Forum on Forests, a two-week meeting of more than 300 government officials. They are reviewing the effectiveness of work to save and protect forests.

Afterward, Maathai picked up a shovel and helped plant a tree outside the U.N. Secretariat building.


A report by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan for the meeting, which began Monday, said deforestation and degradation continue at an alarming rate despite government progress implementing national forest policies.

In the 1990s, the deforestation rate was estimated at 14.6 million hectares (36 acres) per year, but 5.2 million hectares (13 acres) of forest were also gained through new planting and natural expansion, the report said.

Prof. Manuel Rodriguez-Becerra of Colombia, the chairman of the forum, said 90 percent of natural forests are located in 24 countries.

"That's all we have left all over the world," he said. "The rest of the countries -- that means more than 150 countries -- only have a small fringes of natural forests. So there is a major challenge we should address."

Maathai, who is Kenya's vice minister of the environment and natural resources, said she is leading a pilot project with the Green Belt Movement that she founded and the U.S. Agency for International Development to produce tree seedlings native to a mountain near her home and plant them.

Maathai won the Peace Prize for founding the Green Belt Movement, which has sought to empower women, improve the environment and fight corruption in Africa for nearly 30 years. She also won acclaim for her campaign to fight deforestation by planting 30 million trees in Africa.

For every seedling that survives for six months on the mountain, the group that produced it will receive the equivalent of 8 US cents, she said.

"It is very little because it is intended to be incentive, not a payment, for what they are doing -- because this is their forest ... their natural resource," Maathai said.

The aim of the project is to demonstrate that by mobilizing a local community and using very little resources, "it is possible to rehabilitate a forest, an ecosystem," she said.

The first batch of trees has already been planted and if the project succeeds, "then we can replicate this in the other mountains in the country" -- and elsewhere in the world, Maathai said.

"We hope governments can encourage these grassroots movements, because I believe they can turn around the situation," Maathai said. "But if we depend on governments and the foresters, or the professionals, then I'm very sorry it cannot be done without mobilizing communities."

"We talk, but you don't see people out there doing the work. ... We have to do it ourselves, one tree at a time," Maathai said. "There is a lot of money out there. What we need is commitment from the elites, from the governments, to go and mobilize the people."

"It can be done," she said.

Source: Associated Press

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