A Billion Trees, A Singular Voice

Wangari Maathai

Editor’s note: The awarding of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize to Wangari maathai culminated forty years of advocacy and struggle on behalf of the women and the natural habitats of Kenya, her home country. She founded the Green Belt movement in 1977 with the aim of helping regular citizens plant trees and reforest the nation. By the 1980s, the movement’s tree planting spread to public lands — and clashed with Kenya’s dictatorial government. maathai, periodically harassed and jailed, emerged as a political voice for a more democratic Kenya. In 2002, when a freely elected president swept the previous regime out of power, maathai was voted into parliament and appointed assistant environment minister. The Nobel announcement two years later made her a world figure.

When I was growing up in Nyeri in central Kenya, there was no word for desert in my mother tongue, Kikuyu. Our land was fertile and forested.

But over time, I witnessed forests being cleared and replaced by commercial plantations, which destroyed local biodiversity and the capacity of the forests to conserve water. Today in Nyeri, as in much of Africa and the developing world, the soil is parched and unsuitable for growing food, and conflicts over land are common. Deforestation is on the increase. In Kenya the forest cover is less than 2 percent, while the UN recommends at least 10  percent for any country.

Thirty years ago, I was inspired to plant trees to help heal the land. That is how the Green Belt Movement got started. Trees stop soil erosion, provide fuel, material for building and fencing, fruits, fodder, shade, and beauty.

At the start, I was partly responding to needs identified by rural women, namely their lack of fire- wood, clean drinking water, balanced diets, shelter, and income.

Throughout Africa, women are the primary care- takers, holding significant responsibility for tilling the land and feeding their families. As a result, they are often the first to become aware of environmental damage, when resources become scarce and incapable of sustaining their families.

Ecological stresses force the women to walk farther to get wood for cooking and heating, to search for clean water, and to find new sources of food as old ones disappear.

Tree planting became a natural choice to address basic needs of the women. Tree planting is simple, attainable, and guarantees quick, successful results within a reasonable time. The women are paid a small amount for each seedling they grow, giving them an income as well as improving their environment.

So, together, we have planted over 30 million trees across Kenya and other nations of Africa — trees that provide fuel, food, shelter, and income to support their household needs and children’s education. The activity creates employment and improves soils and watersheds. I placed my faith in the rural women of Kenya from the very beginning, and they have been key to the success of the Green Belt Movement, which is made up of thousands of groups. Through their involvement, women gain some degree of power over their lives, especially their social and economic position and relevance in the family. Women have become aware that planting trees or fighting to save forests from being chopped down is part of a larger mission to create a society that respects democracy, decency, adherence to the rule of law, human rights, and the rights of women.

This work continues. The movement has spread to countries in East and Central Africa. Initially, the work was difficult because historically our people have been persuaded to believe that because they are poor, they lack not only capital but also knowledge and skills to address their challenges. Instead they are conditioned to believe that solutions to their problems must come from “outside.”

Further, women did not realize that their quality of life depends on a well-managed environment. They were unaware that a degraded environment leads to a scramble for scarce resources and may culminate in poverty and even conflict. They were also unaware of the injustices of international economic arrangements.

In order to assist communities to understand these linkages, the Green Belt Movement developed a citizen education program, where people identify their problems, the causes, and possible solutions. They then make connections between their own personal actions and the problems they witness in the environment and in society. They confront a litany of the world’s woes — corruption, violence against women and children, breakdown of families, and disintegration of cultures. They discuss the abuse of drugs and chemical substances, especially among young people. They hear about devastating diseases or epidemics that defy cures or eradication, including HIV/AIDS, malaria, and diseases associated with malnutrition.

On the environmental front, they are exposed to the widespread destruction of ecosystems, deforestation, climatic instability, and contamination in the soils and waters that contribute to excruciating poverty.

Participants discover that they must be part of the solutions. They learn their hidden potential; they’re empowered to overcome inertia and take action. They come to recognize they are the primary custodians and beneficiaries of the environment that sustains them.

Entire communities also come to understand that while it is necessary to hold their governments accountable, it is equally important that in their own relationships with each other, they exemplify the leadership values they wish to see in their own leaders, namely justice, integrity, and trust.

Although initially the Green Belt Movement’s tree planting activities did not address issues of democracy and peace, it soon became clear that responsible governance of the environment was impossible without democratic space.

Eventually, the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle and conflict resolution in Kenya. Citizens were mobilized to challenge wide- spread abuses of power, corruption, and environ- mental mismanagement. In Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, at Freedom Corner, and in many parts of the country, trees of peace were planted to demand the release of prisoners of conscience and a peaceful transition to democracy.

Through the Green Belt Movement, thousands of ordinary citizens were mobilized and empowered to take action and bring change. They learned to overcome fear and helplessness and moved to defend democratic rights.

The tree as a symbol of peace is in keeping with an African tradition. For example, the elders of the Kikuyu carried a staff from the thigi tree that when placed between two disputing sides caused them to stop fighting and seek reconciliation. Many com- munities in Africa have similar traditions.

Such practices are part of an extensive cultural heritage that contributes both to the conservation of habitats and to cultures of peace. With the destruction of these cultures and the introduction of new values, local biodiversity is no longer valued or protected and, as a result, is quickly degraded and disappears. For this reason, the Green Belt Movement explores the concept of cultural biodiversity, especially with respect to medicinal plants and indigenous seeds.

The connection between peace and the environment can be explained using the analogy of the traditional African stool, which has three legs that support the base on which we sit. I believe these three legs are symbolic. One represents good management of our natural resources, equitable distribution of the same, and a sense of account- ability. Another represents good government — a democratic state that respects the dignity of human beings. The third represents peace. The base on which we sit is development. If you try to do the development where you have no legs, or where you have just two legs or one leg, the base is out of balance. It is unsustainable.

It is thirty years since we started this work. But activities that devastate the environment and societies continue unabated. Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own — indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty, and wonder. This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life, with which we have shared our evolutionary process.

Many actions can be taken all over the world. Individuals can choose to “reduce, reuse, recycle, and repair” whenever they can (in Japan this is known as mottainai). Many people are opting for hybrid cars, public transportation, and alternative sources of energy. This is why the Billion Tree Campaign is so wonderful. Everyone can get involved — individuals, institutions, corporations, and governments. Everyone can make a difference. [Editor’s note: The Billion Tree Campaign, launched by the United Nations Environment Programme, is a worldwide tree- planting effort to plant one billion trees in 2007. The initiative was inspired by Wangari Maathai.]

I would like to call on young people to commit themselves to achieving their long-term dreams. They have the energy and creativity to shape a sustainable future. They are a gift to their communities and indeed the world. I have a lot of hope in youth. Their minds do not have to be held back by old thinking about the environment.

The situation is serious: youth of today will experience the consequences of their elders’ mismanagement of the environment. Unless we change course, the coming generations will inherit an impoverished environment that will mean a hungrier, less fertile, and more unstable world. More conflicts will erupt. Through the Green Belt Movement we have tried to instill in young people the idea that protecting the environment is not just a pleasure but also a duty.

In conclusion, I recall my childhood experience when I would visit a stream next to our home to fetch water for my mother. I would drink water straight from the stream. Playing among the arrowroot leaves I tried in vain to pick up the strands of frogs’ eggs, believing they were beads. Later, I saw thou- sands of tadpoles: black, energetic and wriggling through the clear water against the background of the brown Earth. This is the world I inherited from my parents.

Today, over fifty years later, the stream has dried up, women walk long distances for water, which is not always clean, and children will never know what they have lost. The challenge is to restore the home of the tadpoles and give back to our children a world of beauty and wonder.

Wangari maathai, environmentalist, biology scholar, women’s rights advocate, parliamentarian, and founder of the Green Belt Movement, was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2004 she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at Yale.