“When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and hope.” Wangari Maathai once stated.
Wangari Maathai, the legendary environmentalist who became the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace, believed in the power of trees as life changing. By planting seven seedlings in early 1977, she began her mission to reforest her country, as well as empower and educate communities on biodiversity. Wangari had the boldness to believe that everything could be done by everyone, no opportunity is wasted, and therefore, she never surrendered. Her distinctiveness lies in her capacity to look directly at the causes of a problem and not its synthons, and, like a sick tree, dig into its root until it has been completely extirpated.
Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, a rural area of Kenya in 1940 by a peasant family. Her father believed women couldn’t be educated, however, she fought for her rights and obtained a degree in Biological Sciences, a Master of Science degree in America, and consequently a Ph.D. in 1971.
According to her words, the American experience had “transformed” her, opened her to the “spirit of freedom and possibility”1 and made her “want to foster the same in Kenya.”1 America unsealed her to a new reality and nurtured her dreams for a better future in Kenya.
What distinguishes Maathai and makes her a “force of nature” can be linked to her childhood. Growing up in rural Kenya, her mother nurtured her to believe that trees represent hope for the future and for a sustainable environmental change; this bond with the earth never abandoned her.
A determinate phase of her life was the launching of The Green Belt Movement (GBM). The GBM was set up not only to improve agriculture by protecting watersheds and stabilising the soil, but it also created jobs for women by compensating them with a small monetary token for their hard work in fields and as leaders of various projects. It was founded by Maathai in 1977 and in a short time from a small tree planting program, it developed into a movement to empower women and communities to fight for their rights.
According to the GBM board, the vision is to “create a value-driven society of people who consciously work for the improvement of their livelihoods and a greener, cleaner Kenya.” The organisation also promotes a series of core values: love for environmental conservation, self and community empowerment, volunteerism and accountability, transparency and honesty.
The movement began in Kenya, where it still intensively and mainly operates, but it has then spread across Africa and inspired activists around the entire world. Moreover, the organisation is focused on getting women involved in the decision making processes and enhancing gender relations. To do so, the GBM has been organising training seminars for women on water harvesting and food security initiatives. This has incentivised them to take the lead regarding natural resource management, climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.
The impact this movement has had over time is testified by data. Indeed, ever since the GBM has been planting indigenous and fruit trees, there has been an approximate reduction of 12 million tons of carbon dioxide and a production of roughly 100 million tons of oxygen.
Lastly, I think through tree planting Wangari had the brilliant idea that provides citizens with a concrete strategy to tackle climate change. She built her belief on the idea that everyone can take direct action without the necessity of too much training, no matter their class, education or nationality. From my point of view, this is what makes the GBM so successful – everyone has the same possibility and responsibility to make a change.
During her life Maathai had to fight to be recognised professionally and politically as a woman. She was repeatedly imprisoned by Kenya’s government who saw the GBM as too “subversive.” She suffered beatings, whippings, death threats but she never withdrew from her beliefs. She is the testimony that hard work, dedication and courage ensures that changes happen.
Wangari never denied her peasant roots and efficiently worked hand in hand with the women in the fields. Her uniqueness stems from her understanding that the bond built among people is what makes society work and the link with nature what makes the world spin.
Here is some data of the GBM: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org
- Number of GBM supported community tree nursery groups – over 5,000
- Number of trees planting sites in critical watersheds across Kenya – 6,500
- Total number of trees planted since 1978 to date – Over 51 million
- Average survival rate – 70%
I firmly believe that Maathai has been the “new light for Africa,” as President Nelson had once stated. She gave to people what humankind most desires – hope. Hope for a better future. Hope for a prosperous future, both for women and nature.
1 Information and Inspiration: Wangari Maathai, the Green Belt Movement and Eco-Children’s Literature. (2016). International Research in Children’s Literature, 9(1), 20-34.