April 29, 2005

Nagel Speaks on African Women's Rights, Environment

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Mechthild Nagel, associate professor of philosophy at SUNY Cortland and visiting scholar at the Institute for African Development, spoke about environmental justice and women’s human rights in Africa yesterday afternoon. The speech was part of the Institute For African Development’s weekly seminar series.

“Environmentalism has been something that’s been very dear to my heart,” Nagel said at the start of her speech. Nagel explained that she began working with Greenpeace as a teenager in Germany. This is where she learned “how important it is not to just go with the letter of the law, but to change the law.”

Nagel noted that her talk was in tribute to Dr. Wangari Maathai, a recent Nobel Peace Prize laureate who shares Nagel’s interests in fighting for the environment and women’s rights, both important topics in Africa.

According to Nagel, African women have been viewed in the past simply as “AIDS vectors,” but the view is shifting to a focus on “strengthening the girl child and improving her health,” rather than dismissing or blaming her.

Nagel discussed the environment, explaining that the tree is a symbol of peace in Africa and trees are associated with pro-democracy campaigns.

She then quoted a speech by Maathai, which explained that in the late 1980s, “trees of peace were planted to draw attention to the plight of prisoners.” Nagel herself is interested in not only the environment and women’s rights, but also in prisoners’ intellectual rights in Africa.

The Green Belt Movement is one of the biggest NGOs in Africa, with Maathai as its figurehead, according to Nagel. The Green Belt movement is “a project for the people,” and the emphasis is to get the experts that run NGOs out of the grassroots agenda and have the people take the agenda for themselves. This is the only way things will truly change, Nagel said.

The Green Belt Movement ties together women’s rights and environmental issues by encouraging women to plant trees and learn about nutrition. The original motto of the organization, which began in 1977, was “one person, one tree.” This goal was achieved within 10 years, with over 30 million trees planted by 100,000 women.

The movement attempted to educate female farmers by having academics speak to them, but the two types of people didn’t connect. As a result, “women became innovative and used new techniques,” Nagel said.

“Women became foresters without diplomas,” she said. Maathai worked with these women farmers and tried to “avoid paternalistic attitudes like speaking for those who are oppressed.” Nagel stressed that when working with these female farmers, Maathai had to put aside her academic background in order to use common sense to “do what works.”

“Knowledge that comes with schooling is very different from the knowledge you get in the streets,” Nagel said. She continued to say that there is “good reason to favor wisdom over schooling.”

As the speech went on, Nagel further discussed Maathai’s role in the African government and her role in saving the African environment, even when she had to risk her life to do so. In 1999 Maathai was leading a delegation to plant trees when she was stopped by security guards and beaten up. Nagel then told the audience that Maathai “signed the police report with her own blood.”

Nagel stressed the diligence of Maathai in reaching her goals. Maathai was recently elected to Kenya’s Parliament by 96 percent of her district and is now serving as assistant minister to the environment. However, even with the strides Maathai has made, Nagel said that there are endless amounts of work to be done in order to achieve a balance between “women’s empowerment and environmental concerns.”

According to Jackie Cervantes, the associate program coordinator at the Institute for African Development, Nagel’s speech was very appropriate for the seminar because this semester’s focus is on ensuring environmental stability.

“I was interested to see [Maathai] because she is both a teacher and an activist. She is the type of person I would like to resemble,” said Sophie Besancenot ’05, a student enrolled in the seminar. Besancenot said that the seminar was overall “very interesting because it included various people with very different backgrounds and a variety of people in the audience.”

“The Institute Special Topic Seminar Series was created as a response from the Cornell community for a forum to discuss and exchange ideas on development issues in Africa,” Cervantes said. She explained that initially, there were occasional seminars on Africa in various departments across campus but in 1990, the Institute “created a more formal series that has grown substantially over the years with a new overarching theme each semester.”

Past speakers have included Bill Berkeley, former reporter and editorial writer for The New York Times, John Hirsch, former U.S. ambassador to Sierra Leone, and Dennis Brutus, anti-Apartheid activist, poet and professor. Many Cornell professors have also been a part of the seminar series.

Cervantes is “thrilled” with the growing success of the seminar, which is open to all and can also be taken as a one-credit course.

Archived article by Rachel Nayman
Sun Contributor