A few weeks ago I saw a random tweet about the progress of a tree-planting initiative in Kenya, similar to this:
To attain the 10% tree🌲🌳🌴 cover by 2022, one creative avenue for the Service is in forming partnerships with among others, Non-State actors through tree planting initiatives that aim to spur a tree growing culture among our youth today.https://t.co/D75sTp4ap1 pic.twitter.com/Z6qesyDkr4
— Chief Conservator of Forests (@CCF_Kenya) October 11, 2019
Then this weekend, I decided to treat myself and downloaded Chelsea and Hillary Clinton’s latest book, The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience. One of the reasons I went ahead and bought the book is because the description of the book included a mention of Wangari Maathai, a woman “who sparked a movement to plant trees, understood the power of role modeling.” (The Book of Gutsy Women) It seemed like a perfect storm of things I didn’t know…what was Kenya’s tree-planting initiative and who was Wangari Maathai? And as anyone who knows me can attest, I don’t like not knowing things. So today you get my introduction, and maybe yours, to Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement.
Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) was a scientist who did her undergrad and master’s work in the United States during the mid-1960s and the era of the civil rights movement. She was a professor of veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi and in 1971, became the first woman in eastern and central Africa to earn a doctorate. She was an active member of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK), and in 1977, as an offshoot of NCWK, she started the Green Belt Movement; in 2004, she won the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her “contribution to ‘sustainable development, democracy and peace.'” (Nobel Peace Prize) Professor Maathai was the first African woman to receive this honor. That’s the overview of her life accomplishments, but the details are what make her a gutsy woman.
When Dr. Maathai was teaching at the University of Nairobi, she recognized that the deforestation of Kenya was a problem that no one was addressing. Ninety percent of Kenya’s forests had been cut down since 1950, and rural women were reporting to the NCWK…
…that their streams were drying up, their food supply was less secure, and they had to walk further and further to get firewood for fuel and fencing. GBM encouraged the women to work together to grow seedlings and plant trees to bind the soil, store rainwater, provide food and firewood, and receive a small monetary token for their work. (Green Belt Movement history)
Initially, the tree-planting efforts were on a very small scale as Dr. Maathai recruited family and friends to help, but as the movement progressed, students, colleagues, and strangers were recruited to lend a hand.
It then branched out, offering free seedlings to women across the country. For every tree that survived more than three months (about 80 per cent in fertile areas) the women tending them were paid a few pennies. The more trees they planted, the more they made. As they were encouraged to plant more than they would need for firewood, women were soon able to earn extra from selling the surplus. Not only did the scheme reverse deforestation but, for the first time, many women discovered financial autonomy. (In the beginning of GBM)
Having been influenced by observing the civil rights movement in the U.S., Maathai saw the links between human rights and environmental protections. The Green Belt Movement saw the value of an integrated approach which improved the health of the watersheds by planting trees and promoting alternative sources of income from the resulting forests. This initial focus led to further advocacy on behalf of women through a Community Empowerment and Education program:
GBM promotes and enhances gender relations and involves women in decision-making processes. The CEE centers on women and community empowerment to take over leadership in their own situations.
GBM’s experience shows that when the communities understand the linkage between their actions, environment and their livelihood situations (poverty, water scarcity and soil loss and food insecurity) they are more likely to muster their energies and take action for change.
Through our CEE approach, we take community members through a process of understanding their environment, natural resources, identifying their problems and together, exploring sustainable solutions to these problems that affect their livelihoods. (Gender Livelihood and Advocay)
Everything I’ve written so far describes an admirable community organizer and activist, but it’s the sanitized version which doesn’t sufficiently capture what made Dr. Maathai a gutsy woman. For example, she angered the rich and powerful with her support for planting trees. Deforestation occurred in Kenya largely because of corporate plantations that contributed to drought, loss of biodiversity, and the poverty of rural Kenyans.
She was briefly married, but her husband divorced her because “she was too strong-minded and [that] he was unable to control her. When she later, perhaps unwisely, referred in a magazine interview to the divorce judge as “either incompetent or corrupt”, she was charged with contempt of court and sentenced to six months in prison. She only served a few days, but when her husband demanded she drop his surname, she defiantly chose to add an extra “a”.” (Obituary)
She became an enemy of the corrupt Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi in the 1980s, and by 1992, her name was on a list of people the government wanted assassinated. At one point, she was arrested on charges of sedition and treason and forced into hiding from her country’s government. As she became increasingly and overtly political, she was barred from standing for the Kenyan parliament; it wasn’t until 2002 that she ran, won, and was able to assume her seat. As part of the 2002 parliament, she joined the coalition that brought down the government of Moi. Eventually she became the deputy secretary for the environment. The Green Belt Movement thrived throughout this period:
What began as a few women planting trees became a network of 600 community groups that cared for 6,000 tree nurseries, which were often supervised by disabled and mentally ill people in the villages. By 2004, more than 30m trees had been planted, and the movement had branches in 30 countries. In Kenya, it has become an unofficial agricultural advice service, a community regeneration project and a job-creation plan all in one. (Obituary)
Wangari Maathai’s daughter Wanjira Mathai wrote about her mother, “My mother’s legacy is multi-faceted, but the one thing that unites the various elements and life and work is the power of one person to be such a potent agent of change. It doesn’t take a lot of people for real change to happen. At a time when so much seems to be going wrong, it is very easy to get overwhelmed. You don’t need an ‘army’ of people. Each of us can be agents of change.” (The Book of Gutsy Women, p. 142) That’s a powerful legacy.