THE EARTH TIMES
APRIL 30 – MAY 14,1995
She works with words and action
BY ASHALI VARMA
Using the tools of mass communications to achieve harmony in eco-development
NAIROBI, Kenya—Vibrant, animated and with a fervor that only personal experience can bring, Wagaki Mwangi at 29 has been involved in the issues of sustainable development since before the Earth Summit, in Rs Rio 1992.
“I grew up in an agriculture community in Nyeri at the foothills of Mount Kenya,” Mwangi said. “We grew cash crops like coffee and tea and subsistence crops for food. It was a tough life. Everyday after school I worked on the farm.”
“My frustration was that we hardly made any money and the cash crops brought in even less,” she said. “I asked my father why we couldn’t only grow potatoes and cabbage. He said it was government policy, as cash crops bring in vital foreign exchange.”
Mwangi recalls that in her growing years, she saw women struggling, doing all the work but not getting enough to feed their family. “Once a woman came to us begging for some maize even though she had land. I grew up realizing the problems faced by poor farmers in my homeland and became determined to make a difference,” she said.
Mwangi spoke about the time they planted trees around their farm and the other farmers complained that the trees would take away valuable nutrients from the soil. “That is when I began to understand the conflict that arises between environment and development issues because people don’t have enough information.”
Mwangi decided to study mass communication specialize in print media. Today, as one of the editors of EcoNews Africa, a newsletter that goes out free to more than 1500 NGOs in East Africa, Mwangi tries to get the voice of communities and their input into the newsletter.
“We were involved through the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) during the negotiations on the Convention to Combat Desertification,” said Mwangi, “EcoNews called a meeting of local people from dry land areas and asked themwhat they would like to see in the convention and we made sure their views were added.”
They were able to do this because Unep helped to fund a bulletin which served as a negotiating tool for NGOs during the whole process.
One of the interestingfacts that came out of this workshop was that there was no mechanismby whichlocal communities could have an input inglobal policy processes. EcoNews is helping to set up such structures in ‘three communities from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
“Unep is perhaps one of the few agencies which has an understanding of the realities of
the problems faced by local people in a developing country. Perhaps because they are based in a developing country,” Mwangi said, and added, “The most significant impact of having
Unep based here is that it has made our government extremely aware of environmental issues as well’ as NGO participation. We have a large proportion of NGOs in Kenya addressing environmental issues.”