Interview with Wanjira Mathai: A fork in the road

26th March 2021

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Chris Seekings

Africa has played a negligible role in the climate crisis, with developing nations least responsible for the record emissions and global warming that have brought disproportionate suffering to the world’s poorest people. However, booming industrialisation – and the political choices that come with it – could turn Africa into a high emitter just as the West shuns fossil fuels. Wanjira Mathai, vice president and regional director for Africa at the World Resources Institute (WRI) and former chair of the Green Belt Movement (GBM), works to ensure that sustainable choices are made as the shadow of corruption continues to loom over the continent.

Building a movement

Mathai’s mother, Wangari Maathai – the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize – gave her an interest in the environment. “I saw and understood through her eyes what it means to be an environmentalist,” Mathai says. “In the 70s, when she was a professor at the University of Nairobi, she saw that many women were unable to produce healthy food or access drinking water and cooking fuel. She organised them, which was the seed that started GBM.”

It’s impossible to do the GBM’s story justice here, but the documentary Taking Root provides an excellent summary, as does the children’s book Dr Wangari Maathai Plants a Forest. Launched in 1977, the movement aims to mobilise communities in Kenya, particularly women, to protect their natural environment through planting trees. This helps the women generate income and restores their landscape sources of fodder and their main source of cooking fuel, while also helping to combat deforestation and soil erosion. “As a scientist, her mentality was predisposed to think about solutions, and she understood that environmental and ecosystem integrity is dependent upon a landscape that is not degraded,” Mathai says of her mother.

This form of direct community empowerment has been replicated around the country and is responsible for planting more than 51m trees. “One of its greatest achievements has been the high levels of environmental consciousness of Kenyans today – we are some of the most environmentally aware people in the world,” adds Mathai. “My mother taught us that we must take care of nature if we want it to take care of us, and how we can all be environmentalists, regardless of the sector we are in – whether we are journalists, lawyers, we all have a role to play in safeguarding nature. The genius behind the movement was in mobilising women into groups to plant trees as a symbol of their activism.”

Today’s challenges

Looking at Africa in 2021, Mathai tells me that the biggest environmental challenges are related to climate change, and the delivery of urbanisation and industrialisation in a way that is green and climate resilient. “We are not a major emitter, but we could quickly become one with rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. If we transition into the wrong fuels and infrastructure, we could easily put ourselves on a trajectory towards high emissions.”

“Africa is not a big emitter, but we could quickly become one with rapid urbanisation and industrialisation”

Mathai spends much of her time trying to dissuade policymakers from following in the footsteps of developed countries, which have formed an unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels.

One WRI initiative aiming to promote sustainability and economic opportunity models the opportunities of sustainable development, to show how countries such as Ethiopia can grow their economies and also avoid pollution, build resilience and keep emissions low. “We have a very bullish industrialisation agenda in Africa, and our energy use must be best for us in the long-run, but the temptation is that we go the cheaper route – and sometimes the route that is perceived to be cheaper is actually more costly,” says Mathai. “Infrastructure is one of our biggest opportunities to build forward better from COVID-19, but that also risks being detrimental to the environment, high polluting, and failing to create valuable jobs.”

Another area of the WRI’s work focuses on development from a societal perspective. Africa has the world’s youngest population, with an average age of just 19, and numerous surveys indicate that this generation is most concerned about the environment. “It is about creating valuable jobs, unlocking new opportunities – especially naturebased ones – and investing in young people,” Mathai says. “Urbanisation is happening really fast in Africa, so how do we create opportunities for a more equal, inclusive growth, building infrastructure for people, not vehicles, investing in pedestrian safety, nonmotorised transportation such as bicycles, and more mass transit?”

Lacking accountability

Despite the various organisations promoting sustainable development in Africa, money is often still used on the continent to win elections, consolidate power and further personal interests. Transparency International has ranked South Sudan and Somalia as the world’s two most corrupt countries of the past decade, and although the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combatting Corruption has provisions to encourage transparency in campaign financing, implementation is weak.

“We have to get a handle on corruption in all its forms – it is bogging us down and holding us back,” Mathai says. “That is particularly true around government transparency and accountability for public resources, but also private resources, so they are invested in building resilience.”

This is a pillar of the WRI’s work in Africa, institutional and economic transformation – focusing on the political economy and how to deliver change. “It is about understanding underlying power structures and the motivations of governments to do one thing or another, then engaging with the right people to inspire the change we want to see. Who benefits, and who do we need to work with?”

Although Africa is a diverse continent and corruption levels differ between countries, it is losing an estimated US$50bn every year to illicit financial flows that could have been used to fund environmental initiatives and public services. And despite it being the second fastest-growing region on Earth, research by the World Bank suggests that 100 million more Africans live in extreme poverty today than in the 1990s.

“We are investing in engagement and communications, and trying to understand how change happens in a specific geography,” Mathai explains. “We can only get as much change as our political economy will allow. Even if the science tells you one thing, if your political economy is two inches wide, you can only get two inches of change.”

“If we expect the Global South to follow a lowemission agenda, the transfer of technology and finance is needed”

An equitable future

In 2009, the world’s most industrialised countries agreed to give developing nations US$100bn of climate adaptation finance every year by 2020. This promise was not kept, despite the UN warning that climate change will contribute to decreases in Africa’s food production, increased flooding, the spread of waterborne diseases and malaria, and changes in natural ecosystems and loss of biodiversity in the near future. Mathai points to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow later this year as an opportunity for developed countries to up their ambitions and deliver on their promises.

“We need to invest in disaster risk preparedness, build infrastructure that accommodates the reality that we will have increases in flooding, and plan for resettlement of people who are living in areas that face a lot of the environmental damage that is coming down the pipeline,” she says. “Inequality is on the rise, and most developing countries and small island states are not responsible for the emissions we are seeing and the impact being felt. We need more ambition from the developed world.”

This inequality was laid bare in Oxfam research published last year, which revealed that the average Briton emitted more carbon dioxide in the first two weeks of 2020 than a citizen of Rwanda, Madagascar, Malawi, Ethiopia, Uganda, Guinea and Burkina Faso emit in a year. “Although the big emitters are in the North, it is the Global South that stands to be most impacted by climate change, so we have a huge agenda to build resilience in our communities, societies and countries, and invest significantly in adaptation strategies,” Mathai says. “If we expect Africa and the Global South to follow a low-emission agenda, the transfer of technology and finance is needed – a really important partnership. As we’ve seen with COVID-19, we are a global community, and nobody can manage on their own.


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