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Although news reports are pouring in about the disastrous famine swallowing southern Somalia, it's difficult to imagine quite what it looks like. Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai has a pretty good perspective, though, viewing the disaster from next door in Kenya.

Maathai claimed the Nobel in 2004 for her work with the Green Belt Movement, an organization dedicated to planting trees, improving the environment and empowering women to work and provide for themselves. She blames environmental degradation and failing government systems for the tens of thousands of deaths that have already happened and the starvation now affecting 12 million.

In an interview Wednesday on NPR's Tell Me More, Maathai talked about the the very conspicuous damage to the environment in eastern Africa. Over many decades governments haven't taken environmental issues seriously, and now everyone is paying the price, Maathai said. "We now see people dying, animals dying, the landscape completely devastated. This has not happened overnight."

The weak government in Somalia has its hands full fending off al-Shabab, but it has other important work to attend to, Maathai said. Forests, mountains and rivers must be protected to prevent a repeat of the current disaster.

Of course, Maathai's wisdom applies far beyond the famine zone. As she pointed out, protecting soil, air and water quality and promoting sustainable development are important things to do today to prevent disaster down the line. It's a goal of Heifer's work in Africa and around the world.

Read more about Maathai and her work in this story in Heifer's World Ark magazine.


Austin Bailey

Austin Bailey is a writer and editor for Heifer's World Ark magazine.