Hiroshima and the World: The Cherry Tree of Hiroshima

by Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai
Wangari Maathai was born in the Central Highlands of Kenya in April 1940. She was educated in Kenya, the U.S. and Germany. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi, becoming the first woman in east and central Africa to earn a doctoral degree. She taught at the University of Nairobi in the department of veterinary anatomy, becoming its chair in 1976, again the first woman to obtain this position in the region. Professor Maathai was active in the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK) in 1976-87 (serving as its chairperson from 1981-87). In 1976, she introduced to the NCWK the idea of community-based tree planting.

She continued to develop this idea into the Green Belt Movement, a broad-based grassroots organization whose main focus is poverty reduction and environmental conservation. The Green Belt Movement has assisted women to plant more than 45 million trees on community lands, including farms, schools and church compounds. In 2002, Professor Maathai was elected to the Kenyan Parliament, and appointed assistant minister for the environment, positions she held until 2007. In 2004, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2009, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon appointed Professor Maathai a UN Messenger for Peace.

The Cherry Tree of Hiroshima

In February 2010, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan. It was my first trip after being appointed a United Nations Messenger of Peace in December 2009, and a particularly appropriate destination. I placed flowers at the cenotaph for the victims of the atomic bomb and learned more about the terrible consequences of the explosion. The contrast between the sober peacefulness of the cenotaph and the horrors that it commemorated moved me greatly. Tears filled my eyes as I listened to the testimony of a survivor who had been sixteen when the bomb hit Hiroshima, devastating the city and shattering so many lives.

Both the cenotaph and the testimony reinforced for me the urgent need to rid the world of nuclear weapons and the devastation, fear, and desire for dominance they represent. Near the cenotaph, I planted a cherry tree. I did so, not only to remember the victims of war, but as a symbol of hope for renewal and the importance of peace.

Planting a tree was not an unusual act for me. In fact, with my organization the Green Belt Movement, I have spent more than half my life taking a seedling in my hands, digging a hole in the soil, placing the seedling in it, and ensuring that it survives. When I began my work in the mid-1970s, I did not associate the planting of trees with work for peace. I was simply responding to the needs of rural women in Kenya. They told me that their families were suffering from a shortage of food; that they had to walk further and further to collect fuel with which to cook their meals; that their livestock did not have enough fodder to eat; that their land was being degraded because of soil erosion; and that the streams and rivers on which they depended for water were becoming shallower or silting up entirely.

My response was to recommend the planting of trees, which would provide the communities with food and fuel, fodder, shade, and also bind the soil and retain the water so their land would be replenished.

A few years into the creation of the Green Belt Movement, I saw that the central challenge facing the rural communities -- of which deforestation was a symptom -- was that the people of Kenya did not feel a sufficient need to invest in the preservation of their environment. From the most senior ministers in the government to the poorest of our citizens, Kenyans were failing to commit to the long-term sustainability of the natural resources on which everyone depended. The Green Belt Movement realized that the challenges we faced in protecting the environment were based on three problems: bad governance; a culture of selfishness and materialism that placed short-term gain over long-term planning; and a lack of concern for the earth.

As a result, we instituted civic and environmental seminars to empower communities to challenge their leaders and hold them accountable, to honor their original cultural traditions that preserved the land, and to encourage the spirit of volunteerism and working together for the collective good.

As our work expanded, we also came to understand that when we planted trees, we weren’t only encouraging individuals and communities to conserve their land and protect their future, but that they were literally planting seeds of hope and peace. Throughout the world, most conflicts between peoples -- whether international or local -- occur over access to natural resources.

These battles are sometimes misconstrued as tribal in origin, and they are often politicized by unscrupulous elites. But, in essence, the clashes are about who will own and distribute the water, oil, grazing land, forests, or minerals and precious metals. In a similar way, destruction of the land or desertification enhances conflict, since it can incite people to fight over ever-diminishing viable natural resources on which their lives and livelihoods depend.

One of the reasons why we must never forget the horrors unleashed by the atomic explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki is not only that we are still living, quite literally, with the fallout from that decision, but that the bombs in arsenals throughout the globe possess a magnitude of devastation much greater than those dropped sixty-five years ago. The explosions also remind us that the consequences of our actions may extend beyond the immediate to affect us, even many generations later.

Now, almost three-quarters of a century after clouds of poisonous dust and toxic rain fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, climatologists and other scientists are telling us that the gasses countries are pumping into the atmosphere threaten many of Earth's vital ecosystems. Should these collapse, conflicts on a global scale will become much more likely, with potentially devastating consequences for the planet and all the species that call it home.

To this end, the Green Belt Movement has teamed up with the United Nations Environment Programme and Prince Albert II of Monaco to encourage governments and organizations around the world to engage in tree-planting. As of today, the Billion Tree Campaign, as the initiative is called, has received commitments to plant over ten billion trees, and has established a new goal of twelve billion by the end of 2010. We have also called on societies to rediscover their own traditions of thrift and conservation as part of a commitment to preserve what they have. I have been honored to be involved with the mottainai campaign in Japan, which advocates for the practice of thrift, reducing, reusing and recycling, as well as gratitude for the resources one has been given.

Finally, as the goodwill ambassador for the Congo Basin Rainforest Ecosystem, I have been working to convince local and international governments, civil society, and private enterprise to join together with the leaders and communities throughout the Central African region to commit to the sustainable development and conservation of this vital forest ecosystem--the world's second "lung," after the Amazon. Protecting the Congo Basin not only means ensuring that the region finally finds equity and peace after so many years of exploitation and warfare, but that Africa's climate is stabilized and weather patterns around the world aren't disrupted even further.

All of these tasks require us to plant trees and protect those that are already standing in ancient forests or areas of rich biodiversity from being cut down. As has been said many times before, peace is not merely the absence of war. It is something we work for, plant, and commit to in the face of provocation or danger. This task cannot be left to a few. We must all plant seeds of peace--not only symbolically but as a response to the planetary emergency. We must honor the sacred traditions that once protected the earth and rediscover our place in the great web of life, which sustains us and provides us with inspiration and joy.

We must reject the notion that happiness means having more than someone else, and embrace the deeper peace that is only secured when all are fed and sheltered, and when nations turn their swords into ploughshares to work for the common good of all humanity. We must recognize the sacrifices made by those who came before us to provide us with the opportunities they never had, and, like the cherry tree I planted that day in February in Hiroshima, offer hope for renewal and life for the generations that come after us.

(Originally published on May 10, 2010)

To comment on this article, please click the link below. Comments will be moderated and posted in a timely fashion. Comments may also appear in the Chugoku Shimbun newspaper.