Africa’s most celebrated environmentalist was opposed to everything the Alliance stands for. By Jonathan Matthews
The Alliance for Science, the Gates-funded PR outfit for pushing GMOs in Africa, is trying to co-opt the legacy of the late Wangari Maathai (1940-2011), the celebrated Kenyan environmentalist who supported organic farming and condemned “the patenting of life forms and the genetic engineering which it stimulates” as a crime against humanity.
In a move that the renowned Nigerian environmentalist and poet Nnimmo Bassey called “truly shameless” and that other African environmentalists (see below) have also condemned, the Alliance for Science tweeted a graphic that included a photo of Wangari Maathai next to the all-caps message, “CELEBRATING THE LEGACY OF WANGARI MAATHAI”. The Alliance also used the same wording in the accompanying tweet with the hashtag #WangariLives.
That was on International Women’s Day, March 8, and that tweet proved to be just the first in a whole series in which the Alliance used the #WangariLives hashtag, or otherwise referenced the iconic visionary who became the first African woman and the first environmentalist to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Several of the photos and graphics accompanying these tweets used the electric rainbow colours found in the Alliance’s own logo, adding to the impression that the Alliance and the spirit of Wangari Maathai are as one.
Wangari Maathai: Genetic engineering will not feed the world
Wangari Maathai’s concerns about genetic engineering and food security could not be clearer. In part, that’s because Monsanto tried to recruit her, recognising what a coup it would be to associate Africa’s most prominent environmentalist with their “feed the world” advertising campaign.
But Maathai not only refused to sign on to Monsanto’s advertisement, but, in direct response, wrote her essay, The linkage between patenting of life forms, genetic engineering and food insecurity, in which she explained why genetic engineering will not feed the world. Food security, she wrote, is widely accepted to require “the capacity to access, develop and exchange seeds” freely. And she warned her fellow Africans that “if we thought that slavery and colonialism were gross violations of human rights, we have to wake up to what is awaiting us down the secretive road of biopiracy, patenting of life and genetic engineering.”
And when several years later she was awarded the Nobel prize, an article in the Guardian reported that the “prize gives her credibility and political protection that colleagues and friends say she will most likely use in the national and international arena to oppose the African adoption of GM foods, the patenting of life forms, the further destruction of forests and policies that work against the poor”.
Laying claim to her legacy
Given that the Alliance for Science is notorious for its aggressive efforts to promote the GMO crops in Africa that Wangari Maathai opposed and to undermine the kind of agriculture she supported, the Alliance laying claim to her legacy has drawn a chorus of condemnation.
Bridget Mugambe, the Programme Coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), a coalition of more than 40 food and farming groups across Africa, told us that attempts to ignore “Wangari Maathai’s unwavering opposition to GMOs in Africa” and “her courageous activism for the preservation and free exchange of traditional seeds” were nothing less than a “desperate ploy” in the service of “corporations and flawed science to prolong the GMO and green revolution narrative in Africa”. (See Bridget’s full statement at the end of this article.)
Anna Lappé, the American author and advocate for food justice and sustainability, who co-founded the Small Planet Institute with her mother Frances Moore Lappé, was equally offended by the Alliance’s attempt to identify itself with Wangari, tweeting, “This is really a bridge too far—even for @ScienceAlly [the Twitter handle of the Alliance for Science]. Wangari Maathai – who my mother and I considered a dear friend and one of our greatest heroes – was staunchly for food sovereignty, freedom of communities to share and save seeds, for organic food and farming practices.”
And the Kenyan Peasants League, which is fighting the lifting of the ban on genetically modified crops in Kenya through the courts, told us they see “the attempt by the Alliance for Science to lay claim to Nobel laureate Professor Wangari Maathai’s legacy, like the recent astroturf pro-GMO protests in Nairobi and Kampala that they helped organise, as part of a desperate bid to bypass majority opposition to GMOs and to the lifting of Kenya’s GMO ban”.
Don’t expect it to stop
The protests the KPL are referring to were organised by the Alliance’s Patricia Nanteza, a Ugandan who in 2020 was put in charge of the Alliance’s training programmes as part of an effort to create a greater sense of diversity for the New York-based organisation. Similarly, when the Alliance’s American founding director Sarah Evanaga quit at the beginning of last year to take up a comms position with a crop gene editing firm, she was replaced with the Nigerian-born Sheila Ochugboju.
And while Nanteza has been getting GMO proponents out on the streets to support the lifting of Kenya’s GMO ban, the Alliance’s new director has been performing her comms magic well above street level. Ochugboju’s recent activities have included playing a leading role in a luncheon to honour Kenya’s minister of agriculture and an awards ceremony for “women empowering women” arranged by the Nairobi-based Network of African Women Environmentalists (NAWE), of which Ochugbuju is a founding member.
Ochugbuju’s existing relationship with NAWE has been backed up by support from the Alliance for Science and the Boyce Thompson Institute for plant science, where the Alliance is based. And this has enabled the Alliance to get its name and its house colours over NAWE events and to justify its social media promotion of themes like #WangariLives, even though the Alliance promotes an agenda Wangari passionately opposed and it works hand in glove with the powerful commercial forces she directly challenged.
Ochugbuju tweeted that she has also been working on the first book NAWE will publish, “which tells the story of the late Nobel Laureate Prof Wangari Maathai”. It seems safe to assume that that story is unlikely to include those aspects of her inspirational life and vision that AFSA’s Bridget Mugambe draws attention to:
“Wangari Maathai’s unwavering opposition to GMOs in Africa is a testament to her legacy of promoting food systems, championing biodiversity, cultural diversity, and farmers’ rights. Her courageous activism for the preservation and free exchange of traditional seeds serves as a reminder that the loss of such knowledge not only threatens the livelihoods of small-scale farmers but also jeopardizes our planet’s biodiversity and cultural heritage. Attempts to dilute her positions are nothing but a desperate ploy by corporations and flawed science to prolong the GMO and green revolution narrative in Africa. Maathai’s vision for a sustainable future lives on, inspiring us to uphold her principles and honour her legacy as a strong advocate for the rights of farmers and the preservation of our planet’s natural diversity.”