A Pioneering African Environmentalist's Legacy Lives On

By Bob Seay   |   Thursday, October 13, 2011
2 Comments   2 comments.

Oct. 14, 2011

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai with Linda Harrar in 1989 in Nairobi's Karura Forest, Kenya. (Jill Singer)

BOSTON — Last week, three African women were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia; a peace activist Leymah Gbowee, who helped to end Liberia's 14-year civil war, and human rights activist and journalist Tawakkul Karman of Yemen, who has been called "the Mother of the Revolution" in that country.

These three women follow in the footsteps of another pioneering African woman leader.

Making History

Last month, the world heard news of the death of Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai (pronounced wan-GAR-ee mah-THI), who in 2004 became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai was the leader of the Green Belt Movement, a women-led effort to plant trees.

Using segments from an interview in WGBH's Media Archive from the 1990 series Race to Save the Planet, former Nova producer Linda Harrar offered this personal remembrance.

"The first time I met Wangari Maathai, in 1988 in Nairobi, Kenya, she was a little reluctant to be interviewed. She shook her head and said, 'I get into a lot of trouble because I have a very big mouth!' Then she burst into laughter, flashing her unforgettable smile," Harrar said.

A Vision Is Born

As a strong critic of the government, and a courageous fighter for the environment, Maathai did get into a lot of trouble over the years because of her outspokeness. During the 1980s, Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi labeled the Green Belt Movement "subversive." Maathai was arrested, beaten unconscious and thrown in jail for her protests to save parks and forests from development. But she managed to capture the attention of the world, and through her willingness to put her own life on the line, won many of her most important battles.

Maathai started her career wanting to work on preventing childhood malnutrition. In the process, she realized soil erosion was one of the root causes, and that planting trees would be key to solving it.

In the 1990 WGBH series Race to Save the Planet, Maathai said, "I know for certain that the soil is the sustainer of life. Without it, we cannot live. On this continent, we have seen too much suffering, starvation, due to degradation of the soil, and it has taken millions of years to build this topsoil. It is so important to protect it, because if we don't, we are on our way to the end."

Bringing Home The Brains

While Maathai received some of her education in the United States, afterwards she returned to live in Kenya for the rest of her life. Linda Harrar recalled why this was important to Maathai.

"Wangari hated the 'brain drain' of Africa's brightest students being lured away from home, and she believed that Africans need to develop their own leaders to solve the continent's problems," Harrar said. "But she also understood the need for foreign aid to get some promising programs started."

After earning her PhD in Kenya, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, which organized communities of poor women to plant trees and tend to them until they were strong. The women earned a small income for doing this work, in a land where jobs are very hard to find. The Green Belt Movement also taught children to grow green belts around their schools. And it taught farmers to plant trees in rows between their crops, which helps to restore nutrients to the soil.

Dr. Wangari Maathai in 2007 at a garden dedication at the Al Raby School for Community and Environment in Chicago. (via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Making The Mission Possible

Maathai wanted her movement to start with planting trees because it is something that anyone can do. The universality, she said, would help people access the movement.

"Then during the tree-planting campaign, you bring out all the other issues that are very much related: the issues of food production, firewood crisis, soil erosion. All these are part and parcel of what we are discussing, but when we first discuss, we start with the immediate problems, the local problems, the problems we can see every day," Maathai said.

Harrar says the movement planted over 30 million trees.

"Maathai would sometimes say that the healing of Africa is still only a dream. But she understood her own power to inspire people, of all ages and cultures to get behind her," Harrar said.

Maathai also had her human moments of doubt.

"Sometimes I get very discouraged because the problems are just enormous, and although the people are very willing, sometimes they really think that you can solve all these problems at once, and you can't," Maathai said. "But sometimes I also get very encouraged, especially when I see these trees growing in the nursery, or when they're so big that you see the farmers happy in their fields. It's very satisfying. So I go up and down all the time. And most of the time, I think I'm on the better side."

Crossing The 'Vale Of Tears'

What did Harrar find most striking about Wangari Maathai's work?

"Perhaps what I admired so much was Wangari's ability to keep fighting for what she believed in – and to inspire others not to lose heart. I last saw her just after 9/11, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when she was comforting us as Americans for all that we had lost when the Twin Towers fell. One of her best friends had lost a daughter. She of course knew that life can be what she called 'a vale of tears,' but she would always find a way to find strength in what she believed in," Harrar said.

Maathai reflected on why the work mattered so much to her.

"I don't really know why I care so much. I just have something inside me that tells me there is a problem and I have got to do something about it, so I'm doing something about it," Maathai said. "I think that that is what I would call the God in me. And all of us have a God in us, and that God is the spirit that unites all life, everything that is on this planet. And it must be this voice that is telling me to do something. And I'm sure it's the same voice that is speaking to everybody on this planet, at least everybody who seems to be concerned about the fate of the world, the fate of this planet!" Maathai said.

Linda Harrar said Wangari Maathai's legacy should serve as a source of inspiration for all of us.

"So here's an idea. If you're feeling sad or depressed, or cynical about the many problems of the world, think of Wangari Maathai's example: Get out and plant a tree, get your kids to plant a tree. It's something you can do for the future. And it would make Wangari smile that dazzling smile," Harrar said.

Nature In Balance: The National Seashore Looks Forward

By Sean Corcoran   |   Thursday, August 11, 2011
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Aug. 11, 2011

The natural vistas of the Cape Cod National Seashore are the result of federal agreements made in the 1960s. Many visitors like the spareness, though some have moved to develop bigger houses and businesses than what's legally allowed. (lizkdc/Flickr)

WOODS HOLE, Mass. — When the negotiations were complete, when the concerns of businesses, residents and politicians were settled and President John Kennedy signed the legislation to establish the Cape Cod National Seashore on August 7, 1961, the hard work of creating the Seashore park and protecting its ecosystem began in earnest.

Roger Higgin was a 19-year-old Park Service intern in the Seashore's maintenance department in 1968, before eventually becoming a full-fledged park ranger.

"When I first started, I thought the whole job was planting beach grass. The first spring, all we did was dig beach grass, and we would haul it down to Wellfleet, and they were planting around the headquarters at that time," Higgin said. "We spent months, right up until the beginning of summer, planting beach grass."

But beach-grass planting wasn't the only activity ongoing in the early years of the park. Higgin, who is now the park manager of the Cape Cod Canal, said trails were under construction for bicycles, horses and off-road vehicles. Efforts also were underway to protect certain animal life whose dwindling numbers threatened extinction. That work continues today, as each summer trails and beach lands are closed to protect a small, orange-legged bird called the piping plover.

In 1968, it was terns the rangers had to watch out for.

"We had a tern warden, and they would go out and do the same thing you do now for a piping plover, they would get the nest, and they would monitor the tern, and keep vehicles out, like you do now with the piping plover," Higgin said.

Throughout the Seashore's history, conflicts between people and nature, as well as between government, visitors and residents, have cropped up from time to time. And a look back at the park's history indicates that it's hard to predict just what those conflicts will be.

In the mid-1970s, for example, the Seashore experienced something of a crisis, Higgin said, when nude sun-bathing was the rage.

"I remember a nude-in at the Herring Cove Beach, and you could fill the parking lot," Higgin said. "It was a national scene. We're talking big-time trouble."

It wasn't the nudity that was the real concern, Higgin said, but the impact of having thousands of spectators trampling over fragile dune areas. In the end, the Park Service curved the practice with vigilant law enforcement and lots of citations.

But other issues emerged, including troubles with zoning rules. The original deal between the federal government and the six local towns called for the towns to enact strict zoning legislation to govern the 600 homes within the park boundaries and to limit their expansion. But Cape Cod National Seashore Superintendent George Price said it's now apparent that not every community made the zoning changes.

"We have been around for all these years trying to maintain the Cape Cod character, as it is described, and yet there are others who are new to the Cape who come in and would like to see how a large mansion -- that is their definition of a dream house on the beach. So it will be interesting to see how this plays over the next 50 years," Price said.

The very fact that communities involved in the Seashore did not make the zoning changes came as something of a surprise, Price said.

"I think people thought the legislation was pretty self evident, and I thought there was a common understanding of what should be in place, and that obviously is not the case," Price said.

Orleans resident Jonathan Moore was a Congressional aide to Sen. Leverett Saltonstall, who helped negotiate the park agreement with local select boards in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That deal included the creation of a community advisory board to work with the Park Service on local issues. Moore said that going forward, there will be more conflicts, but a system is in place to deal with them.

"My basic answer is: hold on for dear life," Moore said said. "There will be more challenges and more conflict. But the base is so strongly structured.

After all, Moore said, it's lasted 50 years. "It's held on and its succeeded so well, that infrastructure, both political and legal and social, is a lot of tenacity, a lot of endurance. I can't predict what the challenges will be, but saidI hope not expediently, but nearly expediently, the efforts to protect this peninsula are going to get tougher, not weaker," Moore said.

The creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore was something of a grand experiment in federal land preservation. The Park Service had never taken over a populated area like Cape Cod, and the effort took compromise and determination on all sides.

Today, there's general agreement that the experiment was a success. And its the very recognition of the park's value to Cape Cod's character and its economy that supporters say will see it through the next 50 years.

Sen. Brown, Rep. Tierney Chastise Federal Fishing Authority

By Sarah Birnbaum   |   Tuesday, June 21, 2011
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June 21, 2011

BOSTON — A group of Massachusetts’ lawmakers is coming down hard on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency at the center of a contentious debate over regional fishing rights and the subject of a damning Commerce Department investigation last year.
During a Congressional hearing on the agency held in Boston on Tuesday, Rep. John Tierney called for the resignation of NOAA’s chief, Jane Lubchenco. He said the agency failed to respond adequately to reports of abuses by its staff.
"I don’t see the empathy that ought to be there, I don’t see the understanding. And the real commitment to make sure that their positions are understood and factored into any decisions that are made," Tierney said. 
Tierney joins a growing chorus of lawmakers, including Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, who say that Lubchenco failed to respond to reports of abuses at NOAA quickly enough.   
The investigation, by the U.S. Commerce Department’s Inspector General, found NOAA was charging fishermen outlandish fines for small offenses. The money then went into a NOAA fund with no oversight. It was used by regulators to pay for fishing conferences in exotic locations such as Australia, Malaysia and Norway. It also purchased a $300,000 fishing boat used by government employees for fishing trips.  
The Inspector General also found the agency’s Law Enforcement Director, Dale Jones, shredded garbage bags full of documents in the middle of the investigation.
U.S. Sen. Scott Brown asked NOAA’s assistant fisheries director, Eric Schwaab, about Jones’ current whereabouts, but Schwaab refused to comment. He has said Jones was removed from his job, but according to CBS news, Schwaab remains an analyst still making a six-figure salary.
Schwaab also says the agency is addressing past abuses by making a number of financial reforms. Sen. Brown applauded these actions, but many fishermen say they ring hollow when the perpetrators remain unpunished.
Brown said the problem at NOAA goes deeper than what was uncovered in that investigation alone.
"NOAA's history of overzealous enforcement in the New England Fishery has come at the cost of the fishermen’s' trust and their livelihood. And many of them tell me that the folks in Washington regard them as criminals instead of a legitimate and valued regulated industry," Brown said.
In May, the Commerce Secretary ordered the agency to return tens of thousands of dollars in fines to fishermen. The government is still investigating if funds collected through fines are being used properly.


By Paul Epsom   |   Wednesday, August 25, 2010
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Follow us week by week for what you should be doing and planting in and around your garden. This week, it's all about composting.

By Paul Epsom from The Victory Garden

Time to talk about composting. No garden is complete without a compost pile so if you don’t have one already it’s time to make one.

Step one. Choose a place that is close to the garden and close to the kitchen but out of sight (these things aren’t pretty).

Step two. Find a bin. You can make one out of wire mesh or wood or buy one at your local gardening or hardware store.

The two basic elements that make up compost are green garden debris—that includes grass clippings, old flowers, or vegetable matter—and brown garden debris, which is basically dry leaves.

Green ingredients are high in nitrogen and brown materials are high in carbon. The best compost is a mix of one part green to two parts brown. Mixed together, the materials heat-up then break down. For better compost – it’s important to turn the compost over about once a week.

Never put animal waste, meat, oil, or dairy products in your compost. It’s also not good to put in weeds that have gone to seed or plants treated with pesticides or herbicides.

You should have finished compost in about two months but it continues to get better with time. Your compost should be dark brown, moist and smell like dirt. Mix the finished compost into your garden’s soil and your plants will love it.

25 Years Later, A Poisoned Town Can't Come Clean

By Jared Bowen   |   Monday, May 23, 2011
2 Comments   2 comments.

May 23, 2011

ASHLAND, Mass. — In the 1980’s, eight Woburn families received an $8 million settlement over toxic waste dumped near their homes by companies including W.R. Grace. It’s a relatively well-known story, due in part to the fact that the film A Civil Action, starring John Travolta, was made about the case. The case also helped prompt the Environmental Protection Agency began the expansive process of cleaning that and dozens of other polluted sites.
But thirty years later, that story isn’t over. A joint study by the New England Center For Investigative Reporting and WGBH has found that many Massachusetts sites, including the one in Woburn, still live with a toxic legacy.

Read more

NECIR: After 30 Yrs., $1 B, Superfunds Abound In Mass.

FIND YOUR TOWN: EPA waste site cleanup data

SEARCH: State list of contaminated sites

REPORT: Toxics in Massachusetts, town by town

One of those towns is Ashland, home to a plant whose waste practices ultimately turned deadly. Although the plant has closed and cleanup has begun, there’s still considerable contamination from the plant in the Sudbury river.   
The town of Ashland was actively poisoned for sixty years. It started in 1917, when Nyanza, a company that manufactured dyes and pigments on a 35-acre site there, began dumping its chemical waste into the ground. This was a time long before environmental regulations, although residents like Bernie and Marie Kane certainly knew something wasn’t right. “It was talk of the water turning blue and yellow and people hanging clothes out and they were turning colors,” Kane said. “That was all right around the Nyanza site.”

“They would find deceased animals,” adds his wife Marie, from their new home in neighboring Hopkinton.
Nyanza operated until 1978. The poisoned land would remain untouched for another seven years, until the EPA gave it Superfund status and named it one of the ten most toxic sites in the country. The soil and water in and around the Nyanza site was a horrid concoction of hazardous waste.

Clean-up commenced, but by then the poison had taken hold. A cancer cluster emerged — one later linked by the Department of Public Health directly to Nyanza. “We started to pinpoint (cancer cases) on a map and it was amazing,” Bernie Kane says. “You’d see a whole bunch here, and a whole bunch there. It was amazing. Then all of a sudden all downtown, right around Nyanza.”

And ultimately, it was devastating. At just 25 years old, The Kanes’ son Kevin was diagnosed with lung cancer — one of four from his small high school class to develop highly unusual forms of the disease. Eleven months after his diagnosis, Kevin Kane died.

The site of the Nyanza Plant in Ashland, Mass., which left deadly contamination in the surrounding environs. (via Google Earth)

“He wanted it cleaned up,” his father Bernie Kane says. “He didn’t want it to happen to anybody else.”
Thirteen years later much — but not all — of the Nyanza legacy is cleaned up, buried beneath a serene field behind what used to be the Nyanza plant. It has all been swept into a containment area, explains Robert Cianciarulo, Chief of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Massachusetts Superfund Section.
“It’s a landfill (the EPA) constructed in 1992 in which much of the containment soils and sludge and other wastes were consolidated and kept,” Cianciarulo said. “Basically the cap is about four feet thick: A couple of feet of clay, plastic lining and top soil.”
Additionally, nearby homes have been fitted with toxic vapor barriers. Behind the containment field, the EPA carved out a giant trench to prevent rain and groundwater from running through the landfill and carrying contaminants to nearby waterways. But  the nearby Sudbury River is already contaminated.
Despite 26 years of clean-up efforts costing over $50 million, Nyanza stillposes imminent health risks according to the EPA. Standing at the edge of one of the Sudbury’s bucolic reservoirs, Cianciarulo explains the biggest health threat is mercury in fish tissue.
“The cleanup plan that we’ve set out is thin layer capping, (by) adding a thick layer of clean sand or sediment on the bottom of the reservoir,” Cianciarulo said.
For now, though, the river remains a hazard. The reservoir is restricted land surrounded by a fence. But when Greater Bostonvisited, we found a man fishing, whom EPA officials immediately lectured.
Cianciarulo admits it’s a challenge to keep people off the property. “Where there are popular publicly accessible fishing spots, we do have warning signs posted throughout the river,” Cianciarulo said. “This again wasn’t one of those posts just because of its location. But we might reconsider that after today.”
Moneyis the chief reason the Sudbury is still contaminated. Unlike other Superfund sites, no one responsible for the Nyanza dumping is around to pay for the clean-up. So the federal government must foot the bill -- and with 1700 Superfund sites nationwide, there’s a line. “To the extent that resources are limited, hard decisions have to be made but I think the important point is everything will get funded,” Cianciarulo says. “I know there’s frustration out there for the pace of the cleanup now, but then if we’re weighing never vs. maybe a decade or more in some cases, we’re on the job.”
Which is perfectly fine for Bernie and Marie Kanes. The worst, they say, is over. “(The EPA) are monitoring (Nyanza) very carefully, but whether or not it will ever be free of contaminants I’m not so sure, Marie Kane says. “The cap that they put on there is very safe,” Bernie adds. “And they were very cooperative. They were good.”

This story was reported in conjunction with a study by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR). NECIR is a non-profit investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University.  BU journalism student Jenna Ebersole contributed to this report.

Fisherman: Catch-Share Sectors 'Eliminate' Some Business

By Bob Seay   |   Friday, May 6, 2011
0 Comments   0 comments.

May 6, 2011

More than half of New England's groundfish fleet has stayed at dock this season, citing the new catch shares management system as the reason and sparking a heated political battle. (Heather Goldstone/WGBH)

BOSTON — The New England fishing industry continues to experience growing pains. For some fishing families, however, it is more like convulsions. This time last year, in an effort to sustain and replenish ground fish stocks, the national marine Fisheries Service implemented a new regulatory system called sectors.

Sectors are essentially cooperatives that pool together fishing rights based on histories of members. Marine scientists and some fishermen viewed sectors as a step above the previous system, which set limits on the days that professional anglers could be at sea.

Last Friday, we spoke with a longtime Harwich fisherman Eric Hesse, who had an overall favorable view of the new rules. "I have been able to fish in a way that is more effective for my business than under days at sea. I've been able to market my fish more effectively, choose my fishing locations and actually which species I target."

But another fisherman, Tim Barrett, views it differently. Barrett has also been fishing since the mid-1980's out of Plymouth. He spoke to WGBH's Bob Seay about the problems he says sectors are causing for his work. "The sectors from my aspect have essentially elimiated all my commercial groundfishing for the winter. I've lost about 60 percent of my gross income, due to the fact that I've been given a low allocation."

Click the player above to listen to Barrett's full interview.

About the Authors
Bob Seay Bob Seay
Bob Seay is the host of NPR's Morning Edition on 89.7FM WGBH Radio. He got his start in radio during college at WMUH, got involved with WGBH TV while in graduate school at Boston University and formerly hosted ME at WRNI in Rhode Island.
Sarah Birnbaum
Sarah Birnbaum is WGBH News' State House reporter. Send her a news tip.
Jared Bowen Jared Bowen
Jared Bowen is WGBH’s Emmy Award-winning Executive Editor and Host for Arts. 


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