2011 International Year of Forests – A legend has passed away!

This post is also available in: Dutch.

The Wayaca, a famous native tree that is part of our mondi. Evergreen!

Wanghari Maathai, a well-known environmental activist from Kenya lost the battle against cancer at an age of 71 years and passed away at the end of September. Her name might not ring a bell in our region, although to a group of devout nature lovers she’s well known. Kenya is a ‘far from our bed location’ and the news of her passing probably let to a brief ‘it’s a shame’-moment after which most people just went on with their lives. But whoever took the trouble to look at the website of the organization that she founded, called the ‘Green Belt Movement’, soon discovered that Maathai was not just one of the many environmental activists. World leaders from around the world expressed their feelings of grief and respect for Maathai, like President Barack Obama of the United States and Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon.

The Non-Profit Organization The Green Belt Movement was founded with the mission to mobilize the consciousness of the community in Kenya by using tree planting as a ‘hook’ for heightened determination, equality, improved living conditions and environmental conservation. Women rights and the indispensable role of women in improving the living environment were and still are important priorities of the organization.

Professor Maathai founded the organization in the nineteen-seventies. Several projects have been implemented of which reforestation is one of the most prominent, besides nature and environmental education for youth and adults. In 2004, Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work and contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace, in addition to many other awards she received. Not everyone was equally pleased with the woman who managed to get a prominent role in politics and thus made many enemies amongst the mostly male colleagues, who felt that a woman should not involve herself with such important issues. Maathai was not held back by this attitude at all and she ended up in prison several times  because of actions she organized, which threatened the state in the eyes of her ‘enemies’.

Wanghari Maathai, 'Mama Tree' is not with us anymore! Photo Martin Rowe / Wikipedia

An inspiring woman

Anyway, which way she was looked upon aside, for me and with me many, she was an inspiration. She could, like no other, explain why it was important to be pro-active in order to attempt to address the common problems around you, instead of sitting on the side to wait for someone else to decide what to do next. With a simple story of a little hummingbird who single-handedly tries to extinguish a large forest fire by repeatedly fetching a drop of water from a nearby lake to throw on the fire with its tiny beak, while large animals like elephants who could get a lot more water with their trunks, watched powerless and were too scared to do something, she illustrated this point. This story has become an inspiration for many in the world and I recommend everyone to watch the tale with your own eyes. This is possible through the following link: I’ll be a hummingbird.

The message of Mama Tree

Wanghari Maathai in not with us any more, but the woman known as ‘mama tree’ left an important message behind. The protection of trees and forests, for tackling climate problems, prevention of erosion and other associated environmental and poverty issues is a necessity. On a planet where the population is increasing alarmingly and therefore will have to face a lack of space for living but also for agriculture to grow enough food, this is a very important message. The protection of forests on all continents and certainly on small islands is vital for the welfare of the world and for the welfare of the population of each state.

Wayaca fruits and seeds

Protecting the ‘mondi’ is a must

Protecting what we locally call the ‘mondi’, which is really the Curaçao forest, is therefore important too. For several reasons. Maintaining sufficient forest on the island not only ensures the preservation of biodiversity and is therefore an indispensable asset in bringing in the much needed tourists, it also prevents erosion. On an island where it is difficult to even produce part of the food needed for our own survival, each tiny layer of fertile soil is of inestimable value. If we cut down the ‘mondi’, than the tree roots will no longer be able to fixate the earth layer, which will be flushed out to the sea by the first rain showers. And so we destroy our own future, because nothing grows on bare rock. What is also important is that the ‘mondi’s’ serve as water catchment areas. Rainwater penetrates the ground much more easily and efficiently in forested places, and a lot more difficult in deforested places. On a small oceanic island like Curaçao, where freshwater springs and reservoirs have to be located with a magnifying glass, this is essential for the replenishment of groundwater. Groundwater which in turn can be pumped up for crop growing. Trees also provide food for both wildlife and ourselves, and produce oxygen on a large scale which we need to keep breathing. They also provide shade, and shelter and breeding places for several animal species. By contributing one drop and advocate the preservation of our mondi and prevention of massive deforestation on the island, we can extinguish the fire. It starts with ourselves.

About Michelle da Costa Gomez