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Environmental Activism and Leadership Outside of the UN System


“Climate action is really action on the ground. For that to happen we need to seed more movements, more local NGOs, and invest in local leadership in ways we have not done before.” Wanjira Mathai


The Center for Governance and Sustainability hosted Wanjira Mathai, Vice President and Regional Director for Africa at World Resources Institute (WRI) on October 1, 2021 as part of the UNEP@50 Dialogue Series. She is also the Chair of the Wangari Maathai Foundation and the former Chair of the Green Belt Movement, an environmental organization, founded by her mother, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Mathai, working on empowering communities, specifically women, to defend nature.

Hosted by Center Director, Professor Maria Ivanova, the dialogue revolved around “Activism from the Outside,” which included discussions on grassroots movements and their relationship with as the anchor institution for the global environment. After a discussion of Wanjira Mathai’s 20 years of experience in advocating for social and environmental change and her leadership, the dialogue on environmental activism and leadership outside of the UN system revolved around top-down versus bottom-up approaches, the critical role of women and youth in holding governments accountable, as well Mathai’s vision for UNEP@100. The audience engaged actively in the conversation throughout the hour by posing reactions and questions in real time.

Born and raised in Kenya, Mathai studied public health in the US. She returned to Kenya to continue the work of her mother with the Green Belt Movement. Wanjira Maathai has years of experience of working with local communities to understand the role they play in “transforming the natural environment” and “the grassroots leadership in environmental work.” She also talked about the role of international organisations in Kenya and Africa overall, as well as about the controversies associated with UNEP in the fight for Karura Forest, which very recently was renamed after her mother, Wangari Maathai, for her efforts in protecting the land.

In addition to activism from the outside, Mathai emphasized the role of fossil fuels and the need for climate justice and just transition. As part of this, Mathai highlighted the need for climate finance in addressing loss and damage in Southern states, while also stressing the critical role that the youth, women, and international NGOs play with UNEP’s support. She noted that UNEP could take a more active role holding our governments and other actors accountable. "Our job is now to create opportunities, to consolidate, to move resources as much as we can to the grassroots. It has been done before but it certainly is what needs to happen.”

A dynamic portion of the conversation was devoted to answering the participants’ questions (who were mainly students). Wanjira Mathai addressed questions regarding the intersections between climate change and conflict, what needs to be done for the rural communities, who are the first ones to face the catastrophic consequences of climate change, as well as her expectations from the upcoming COP26 UN Climate Change Conference.

To conclude, Professor Ivanova asked Mathai about her vision of UNEP@100.

In response, Mathai smiled and said, "I'm trying to envision UNEP 5 years at a time," but hopes that UNEP will continue to be the "go-to" institution for "everything,” i.e. for the environment.

On that note, the Center for Governance and Sustainability concluded the third session of the UNEP@50 dialogue series. Please join us on October 18, 2021 for Maria Ivanova’s next conversation with Marta Rojas Urrego, the Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands at RAMSAR@50.

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