JIN-357 -- An Interview with Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai

T H E J @ P A N I N C N E W S L E T T E R
Commentary on the Week's Business, Technology and Cultural News

Issue No. 357
Wednesday February 22, 2006 TOKYO

+++ VIEWPOINT: An Interview with Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai

ICA Event - March 23

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Editor's note: This week's JIN is by J@pan Inc staff writer
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+++ VIEWPOINT: An Interview with Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai

Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, who founded the Green Belt
Movement in Kenya in 1977, has called on industrialised
countries to reduce waste and increase investment to stave
off desertification across the world.

Speaking to a 400-strong crowd at Waseda University on February
13, where she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate for
her work in environmental protection, Prof. Maathai called
desertification "the new enemy."

"I was emphasising that this is a great enemy to mankind
because we are losing so much top soil. We are losing it
into the water, we are losing it into the wind," she told Japan
Inc. in a phone interview a few days after the ceremony.
"We invest so much in weaponry, in preparation for any
physical enemy that may come across the border, and we invest
much, much less in efforts to combat desertification. Yet
desertification claims that land forever."

Adopting the Japanese word "mottainai," meaning
"what a waste," in her new global campaign for environmental
conservation, Prof. Maathai, who was the first woman to hold
the position of Dean of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy
at the University of Nairobi, has been impressed with the level
of environmental protection in Japan, but is quick to add that
those same safeguards should be practiced when Japanese
companies go abroad.

"The Mottainai Campaign, here in Japan, resonates very
beautifully with the people because in many ways it is
embedded into the culture," she explained. "It is very important
that [Japanese] companies encourage these codes of conduct
and practices, so that companies don't relax when they go
abroad. This is very common, especially with companies that
operate in developing countries where environmental laws are
not properly developed and governments are not very sensitive
to the needs of the people."

Asked what she would recommend for grassroots and
government cooperation in the area of environmental protection
in Japan, Prof. Maathai was quick to cite an ongoing campaign
in Yokohama, "G30," with the goal of reducing domestic waste
by 30 percent.

"I was very impressed that the Governor [of Kanagawa] and
Mayor [of Yokohama] are both running campaigns to try to
encourage the citizens to reduce waste," she said. "That's the
kind of thing that needs to be encouraged, especially in
industrialised countries."

For Japan, where products are often wrapped multiple times,
the call to reduce waste cannot come quickly enough.
According to the Ministry of Environment, the average Japanese
household consumes the same amount of natural resources
as the waste it creates: 12.5 tonnes a year. It is perhaps fitting
that the Environment Minister, Yuriko Koike, gave Prof. Maathai
a "furoshiki" -- a cloth traditionally used to wrap anything from
food to books. Symbolically, the furoshiki given to Prof. Maathai
was made of recycled plastic bottles, and, according to a report
in Kyodo News last week, it is hoped that its use will spread the
spirit of "mottainai" to others.

Prof. Maathai is one of the most highly celebrated and educated
women in African history, but she is probably best known for the
Green Belt Movement's success in mobilising Kenyan women to
plant more than 30 million trees. In 2002, Prof. Maathai was
elected to the Kenyan parliament, winning 98 percent of the vote,
and it is within her government work that she has been able to
introduce laws that protect Kenya's forests.

"It is extremely important for grassroots organisations to be supported
by governments because there are many things that grassroots
people cannot do because they don't have the resources....
However, at the same time, grassroots organisations can be a
response to the needs of the community," she said. "I have taken
advantage of my position to try to introduce laws and raise awareness,
even in the parliament."

In 2004, Prof. Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She
says the prize is recognition of the fact that environmental
protection is an extremely important pillar for peace.

"You need a governance system that respects human rights, that
respects other people"s space, that respects the rule of law, because
it is only such a system of governance that will be able to manage
our resources responsibly and sustainably, and promote equitable
distribution, and in doing so invest in peace."

Prof. Maathai departs Japan today.

-- Willhemina Wahlin

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Written and edited by Burritt Sabin (editors2@japaninc.com)

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