Wangari Maathai

(1984, Kenya)

...for converting the Kenyan ecological debate into mass action for reforestation.

About

Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya, in 1940. She was trained in biological sciences and received a doctorate from the University of Nairobi, where she also taught veterinary anatomy. She became Chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and an associate Professor in 1976 and 1977 respectively, being in both cases the first woman in the region to attain these positions.

Contact Details

Green Belt Movement
PO Box 67545
Nairobi
KENYA

Website

Biography

Maathai was active in the National Council of Women of Kenya from 1976 and was its chairman, 1981-87. It was through the Council that she introduced the idea of planting trees with the people and developed it into a broad-based, grassroots organisation designed to conserve the environment and improve women's quality of life. By the end of 1993 the women reported that they had planted over 20 million trees on their farms and on school and church compounds.

The Green Belt Movement grew very fast. By the early 1980s there were estimated to be 600 tree nurseries, involving 2,000-3,000 women. About 2,000 public green belts with about a thousand seedlings each had been established and over half-a-million school children were involved. Some 15,000 farmers had planted woodlots on their own farms.

In 1986 the Movement established a Pan African Green Belt Network and has introduced over 40 individuals from other African countries to its approach. This has led to the adoption of Green Belt methods in Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and some other countries of the region.

The Green Belt Movement set itself both short- and long-term objectives. The overall aim has been to create public awareness of the need to protect the environment through tree planting and sustainable management. More specifically, it has initiatives to promote and protect bio-diversity, to protect the soil, to create jobs especially in the rural areas, to give women a positive image in the community and to assert their leadership qualities. It has made tree planting an income-generating activity. It promotes food security and assists people to make the link between environmental degradation and many of the problems they face, including poverty and livelihood insecurity.

Over its first 20 years, many of the Movement's objectives have been achieved. Environmental awareness has been greatly increased in the country, and many women's groups have sold millions of seedlings to the Movement, using the income to meet immediate domestic needs such as education of their children or investing it in other income-generating ventures. Tree planting has become an honourable activity and many people have adopted it. Relevant knowledge and techniques have been imparted to the participants and many women have become 'foresters without diplomas'. Over 3,000 tree nurseries and more than 3,000 part-time jobs have been created.

In later years Wangari Maathai's own work had focused on the human rights situation in Kenya. Standing up for a democratic, multi-ethnic Kenya, she was subjected to defamation, persecution, detention and physical attacks.

Wangari Maathai received numerous awards and honorary degrees. In 2004 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Time Magazine identified her as one of 100 most influential people in the world in 2005, and the Forbes Magazine as one of 100 most powerful women in the world. In 2007 she was awarded the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights, in 2010 the Lions Humanitarian Award and the International Freedom Award.

Wangari Maathai died of cancer in September 2011 but her legacy continues in many projects around the world, so for example in the Plant for the Planet: Billion Tree Campaign.

Speeches

Acceptance Speech by Wangari Maathai

December 9th, 1984

Mr. Chairman,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

A.

I have come to Stockholm to accept with the greatest humility and gratitude an award from the Right Livelihood Foundation. I have not only come on my own behalf but on behalf of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK) especially the numerous women groups who produce the tree seedlings in the fifty odd tree nurseries, the thousands of school children who plant them and take care of them under the dedicated leadership of their teachers. I have come on behalf of the green belt staff who give a presence of the movement in remote places of our country, the individuals who have planted trees on their plots and on behalf of any person who has sponsored a tree in any of the green belts. I have also come on behalf of the donors who gave us funds to be able to translate our ideas into a programme. And so represented here are the thousands in my country and abroad who have shared our thoughts, our aspirations and our demonstrations.

We have been informing our people informally. We have been telling them that if they be found ignorant it must not be in the understanding of the Laws of Nature. We have been telling them that drought and famine need not be an annual event, some diseases need not be, malnutrition need not be and some deaths need not be. We have been telling them that with a little bit of help from outside and much will to use their resources on their part they can reverse the trend. They are listening, they are responding and they are struggling hard.

The Right Livelihood Foundation surprised us most pleasantly when it gave the 1984 award to use. We can never be afraid again because we know now that as we walk these paths we walk not alone. We are many and our number makes us strong.

B. 

And now for the work we are involved in:

The green belt movement (GBM) is now a slogan which describes a broad-based grass-root tree planting activity currently taking place in Kenya. Since trees are planted in several rows around compounds or farm plots (shambas) the planting of trees appears to dress up the compounds in belts of green trees. In our adverse activities on the land e.g. in discriminate cutting down of trees, bush clearing, failure to stop soil erosion, overgrazing, over-population and overall general negligence towards our environment not only have we torn into rags the beautiful green dress of our mother-land but in some places we have stripped her naked. We have inflicted deep wounds on her and she is weak and unproductive, Yes, indeed, according to the prophet Isaiah, we have sinned against the Natural Laws (God, goodness, order of Nature) and we are being pushed. The Natural Laws are taking their natural course which for us means destruction and death. We must repent our sins (i.e. rectify our wrong doings) by dressing our mother our mother-land in her original beautiful and full green dress. In planting trees we are adorning our mother-land with belts, green belts.

When we have repented (i.e. rectified) our mother-land will be healed and we shall reap a bounteous harvest. And thus our committal, which we recite before planting trees:

"Being aware that Kenya is being threatened by the expansion of desert-like conditions, that desertification comes as a result of misuse of the land by indiscriminate cutting-down of trees, bush clearing and consequent soil erosion by the elements; and that these actions result in drought, malnutrition, famine and death, WE RESOLVE to save our land by averting this same desertification by tree planting wherever possible".

"In pronouncing these words, we each make a personal commitment to our country to save it from actions and elements which would deprive present and future generations from reaping the bounty which is the birthright and property of all".

C.

First why we do what we do:

1. The Kenya Government has a Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and a Presidential Commission on Soil Conservation and re-afforestation. Both bodies are responsible for re-afforestation efforts in the whole country. But we know that few governments, and less so in the developing world, can afford the financial and man-power resources required to do what needs to be done.
It is necessary for private/voluntary, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals to be mobilized to provide at least the man-power needed in afforestation programmes.

2. As soon as we took trees to the people we realized that there was great demand for trees. People clamoured for the trees we issued at public meetings. This was a pleasant sight. Unfortunately, we also discovered that they did not appreciate the fact that trees like other crops, need to be planted properly, need after-care and have to be sheltered from livestock and human beings. It became obvious all to us that there was need to teach almost/ the people that they have to dig holes, apply manure, make sure that water is available and build shelter for protection.

3. The demand for trees necessitated the establishment of tree nurseries. In order to take more trees to a greater number of people we realized the need to train ordinary persons to become seedling producers. Since we are a women?s organization and many women are organized into groups we decided to make rural women groups our major target groups. We trained them on the basics of raising seedlings more or less like they can raise their cabbages and potatoes. These groups have now been joined by youth groups and clubs.

4. In order to promote the seedling production we decided to purchase seedlings at a minimal price of about US seven cents per seedling. This way not only do the groups gain new and useful knowledge but tree production becomes income generating. 

5. Most people are crop-farmers and livestock-keepers. They cannot turn all their land into woodlots because they need it for crops. They are encouraged to practice agro forestry, farming methods our people used before the European methods of farming were introduced and erroneously considered superior. Now the scientists are recommending this agro forestry approach and unfortunately the current generation has to be taught to intercrop ..... all over again. This requires some knowledge on the trees and the role they play in the soil and in respect to other crops. Most indigenous trees for example, are of course better suited ecologically but many are slow growing and do not have much economic value in the current market. This puts them at disadvantage as farmers go for the exotic or imported trees which grow faster and have a well established market that is, at least to-day, when the trees grow in what is to them virgin land. Several hundreds years from now we may find that the exotic trees precipitated desertification and destruction of the varied life that flourish in tropical ecological systems. To discourage the planting of imported trees we pay less to seedling producers (mostly women) for them and more for the indigenous and fruit trees which are more appropriate for agro forestry.

6. The original major objective of the green belt movement was to help the needy urban poor of a certain area of Nairobi. In mind were the handicapped, school leavers and the very poor. The best way to help them was create jobs. So we hired them as green belt rangers and nursery attendants.
Many of the green belt rangers and nursery attendants are illiterate and have no training in nursery or forestry techniques. We would provide them with basic training to be able to nurse the trees and assist the school children each of whom attends a few trees. By employing such persons we were also, indirectly, rehabilitating and assisting them amongst their relatives and friends instead of having them institutionalized or have them move to towns where they become beggars. Whenever possible we try to employ mothers or fathers so that the whole family benefits. We have had situations where the handicapped persons (say blind) is assisted by his/her able-bodied companion.
The nursery attendants supervise the operations at the nursery help keep records, make monthly reports and issue the trees to the members of the public. They also teach newcomers to the nursery the basics of how to produce seedlings for sale to the green belt movement.
We noted that when the community identifies person who could play this role they would mostly identify a very poor parent whose children may be having problems with school fees.

Besides the very poor and the handicapped, school leavers are hired as promoters and follow-ups.
The promoters go ahead of everybody else in the field and talk to the members of the community about the problems of desertication giving suggestions on what they can individually do, encouraging them to dig holes and apply manure to them. They send monthly reports on the number of holes they check and issue approval tokens which the applicants take to the nurseries so that they can be issued with trees. The green belt movement expands as fast and as well as the promoters can effectively push it to the members of the public.
The follow-ups attend to the planted trees to ensure that they are indeed planted, they are being attended to and they are therefore surviving. They also send in monthly reports on the number of trees issued and the number surviving at the green belts.

A few fairly trained individuals are engaged as supervisors in the field. When operating at peak there may be 250-300 Individuals of these categories earning their living from this programme. If we were able to substantially create more jobs in the rural areas we would help in curbing migration into the urban areas in search of jobs. Most migrants are the youth and the rural poor. Migration into the urban centers only serves to aggravate the unemployment situation and the problem of the urban poor who live in shanties and city peripheral areas.

7. One of the most obvious results of deforestation and bush clearing is the soil erosion. During the rainy seasons rivers are red with the top soil. Lost top soil leaves behind impoverished sub-soil which cannot support agriculture and as a result food production goes down. Education is necessary so that farmers can appreciate the relationship between soil erosion and poor agricultural output.

8. Deforestation and bush clearing has precipitated an energy crisis because wood fuel has become scarce. Fetching of wood and preparation of food for the family is a responsibility of the women. And so as wood disappears women and children walk further and further from home to look for firewood which may only turn out to be twigs and sticks. Where these do not exist they will turn to agricultural residue and cow dung. These are products which should be returned to the soil in order to make it richer for food production. Burning these breaks the carbon cycle and creates a vicious cycle in agricultural production.

9. The crisis of wood fuel precipitates another problem: malnutrition. A woman with little wood fuel opts to give her family food that requires little energy to prepare. If she has money she often turns to refined foods like bread, maize meal, tea and soft drinks. A woman may not appreciate what she must give her family to ensure a balanced diet. That ignorance, coupled with shortage of wood fuel provides an excellent background for undernourishment and diseases associated with poor feeding habits. If too many people are caught up in this situation one can easily have a sick society and a sick society in unproductive. Unproductive people are eventually pushed down into the world of underdevelopment. It is very important therefore, that the energy crisis of the poor is solved through provision of the wood and utilization of more efficient combustion devices which reduce wood consumption.

10. Indirectly, the project has been promoting a positive image of women which is a concern for the NCWK which strives to promote a balanced development of a woman's personality and to facilitate an environment in which such development can take place. Even after 10 years of debate on women issues during the women decade it appears appropriate for women to talk around development issues and cause positive change in themselves and country. Development issues provide a good forum for women to be creative, assertive and effective leaders and the green belt movement, being a development issue, provided the forum to promote women's positive image.

This is very important because women have to become involved in development as equal participants and benefactors. For currently, although women are the most numerous voters very few women are voted into public offices. This is partially because women are not afforded a forum to develop leadership qualities as they mature and even during adulthood. They are always the followers but never the leaders. Women are therefore, too often only nominated by men to positions of responsibilities. Women have always played a major role in the socio-economic and political arena of nations but they are not always publicly acclaimed, appreciated or proportionately rewarded. Indeed women are often silenced by small token positions of influence and responsibility while men are rewarded with positions they hardly deserve. Women have generally come to accept that they have to be extremely grateful for the very little they get from men both in private and public form. Those women who would point out the continued disproportionate representation of women in the decision-making structure (both political and economic) are conveniently given such labels as rebels, radicals, women libers, women elite and so forth. This is deliberately done to discredit them in the eyes of the public so that whatever they have to say or stand for is suspiciously scrutinized and preferably scorned upon. Because of this the majority of women will opt for practices which dehumanize them and make them weak, unchallenging servants to their men folk rather than partners in development. As in other areas of inequality deliberately promoted the myths of the inferiority of women can only be demolished though glaring examples with which nobody can intelligently argue. The green belt movement and other projects initiated by women are some examples around which kitchens, babies nappies and sex are not the points of reference.

D.

Have we achieved our short and long-term objectives? Most of the short-term objectives have been realized. Some of these are:

(a) To encourage tree planting so as to provide the source of energy in the rural areas. 

(b) To promote planting of multipurpose trees with special reference to nutritional and energy requirements of man and his livestock.

(d) To promote the protection and maintenance of the environment and development through seminars, conferences, workshops etc.

(e) To encourage soil conservation land reclamation and rehabilitation through tree planting.

(f) To develop methods for rational land use.

(g) To create an income-generating activity for rural women.

(h) To create self-employment opportunities especially for handicapped persons and the rural poor.

(i) To develop a replicable methodology for rural development.

(j) To carry out research in conjunction with the University of Nairobi and other research institutions.

(k) To create self-employment opportunities for young persons.

(l) To carry out any activities that promote those objectives

- Thousands of trees have been produced by women planted by communities and school children in over 700 public green belts. Thousands of individuals have established private green belts. Tree planting has become an honourable activity for all and because the political leadership publicly supports conservation and reforestation efforts the general populace is easily persuaded. The sight of the President planting a tree and urging others to do the same is a valuable example for his people to emulate.

- Community tree nurseries operated by women groups, youth clubs and schools have been established in many parts of the country. At the moment they are about 50. Not only are the trees generating income for the producers but relevant knowledge is being imparted to them during demonstration sessions and visits by the trained personnel.

- Scores of individuals especially the poor and the handicapped have found jobs within their own environment amongst friends and relatives. Some children have completed their school because their parents were employed as green belt rangers.

E.

Why has this approach worked?

Many people have wanted to know why the approach we have opted for has worked. There is a combination of reasons. Some of the more obvious have been as follows:

- The green belt movement pursues several goals at the same time and focuses on several target groups all of whom can find their place in the movement.

- The short-term objectives are realized fast enough to maintain momentum and interest. People need success stories to believe.

- The Executive Committee of NCWK and those directly charged with the responsibility of guiding the movement have been very committed.

- There has been a good understanding of the issues involved. The leaders appreciated the cost of the high rate of population growth against the scarce land resource, they knew of the diminishing forest cover, they appreciated that the elimination of indigenous trees would precipitate a changed ecosystem. They felt that because they knew it was their responsibility to initiate action.

F.

Have we encountered problems? Yes indeed.

By far our greatest problem has been lack of sufficient funds to allow the programme to expand as fast as demanded by the people. The second handicap was lack of appreciation of proper planting needed and after care of trees. Perhaps our third major hurdle is the difficulty of procuring accurate records. We must be told the truth from the field. The truth may mean less money, loss of an income and sheer hard work. Working at this truth can be taxing, time consuming not to mention the fact that it can be very expensive. The need for it is not always appreciated and can develop into a major hurdle.

G.

Who has funded the Movement?

Initially, we worked with purely voluntary service which in our country is known a sharambee. Then we introduced the idea of sponsoring trees which we would plant and take care of. Some substantial donations came from Mobil Oil (K) Ltd., the Environment Liaison Center, the Canadian Embassy, the German Embassy and the International Council of Women.The total amounted to Kshs. l60,000 (about US Dollars 10,000). In 1981 we hit a Jack Pot and received Kshs. 1 million (US Dollars 100,000) from the Voluntary Fund of the United Nations, ½ million (US Dollars 50,000) from the Norwegian Forestry Society and Norad and Kshs. 3 1/2 million (US Dollars 300,000) from the Danish Voluntary Fund for Developing Countries. All the grants have run currently and are scheduled to end before or in 1985. We have just received financial support from Norad of Kshs. l.9 million (US Dollars 127,000).

H.

What we do with the funds

We purchase tools for tree nurseries and green belts, organize workshops and seminars for new participants, purchase seedlings from seedling producers (mostly women), pay green belt staff (nursery attendants, promoters, follow-ups, green belt rangers and supervisors) and maintain a small secretariat at the headquarters. The ordinary people contribute in kind by:

Digging holes for tree planting 
Providing manure 
Sheltering, protecting and watering the trees 
Preparing nursery sites including making of benches, seedbeds etc. collecting seeds. 

Many of our members supervise the operations in the fields where they are and assist with on site training for new participants.

I.

I am often asked, "Why did it take the women to start the green belt movement?"

The inspiration did not come to me because I was a woman. It came to me because my mind was searching for a solution to a very specific problem. Inspirations come to all of us but many of us may not have the right mental peace and tranquility at the critical time to allow the inspiration to grow beyond the stage when it appears like a dream. I think I was just lucky. I do not know why I nursed the inspiration until it became an idea and finally an activity.

I think that women in the NCWK were quite good at pursuing that idea which for a long time bore little fruit. But that patience is not a prerogative of women. Men could have done the same if similarly inspired and sufficiently motivated. Perhaps the only thing that was characteristically women-like was our grouping and our rapid acceptance of the movement. But some observers claim that the motivating force in the field especially among women was the financial gain. May be, may be not. But if it is very few men were so motivated until much, much later.

J. 

Liaison has been essential because of the nature of the project. The green belt movement has worked closely with the Ministry of Environment & Natural Resources from the very beginning. At a very early stage it was possible for our participants to walk into the forester's office and receive as many seedlings as had been prepared for. Most, if not all, foresters have co-operated in this endeavor and all appreciate the complimentary and rather unique contribution being made by the green belt movement.

There has also been very close co-operation with the office of the President (Administration) who have assisted at the district and locational levels. The green belt staff are often invited to Chief's meetings to explain the movement to the people.

Each green belt or tree nursery is supervised by a local committee comprised of leaders from the local community. This is the committee which maintains the spirits of interest and awareness after the NCWK's launching party has gone. It is the nucleus around which the community will continue to be motivated and involved. Under the leadership of the local green belt committee the community volunteers to dig holes, place manure in holes and only wait for the launching ceremony. Under the current methods such work, which would otherwise cost the tax-payer a lot of money and time is given free-of-charge by the community.

K.

What of the Future? 

We must continue to care and bother about issues which are not immediately concerned with the gratification of our physical senses. We are a unique heritage to the ecosystem on this planet earth and we have a special responsibility. If to those to whom more has been given more will be expected then we must embrace our special responsibility which is more than is expected of the elephants and the butterflies. In making sure that they and their future generations survive we shall be ensuring the survival of our own species. Where people have been insensitive to the life of trees, of the life that flourishes in the top soil of cropland, of life of grass and shrubs, of young children, ... yes, of all living things we have witnessed indiscriminate deforestation, soil erosions over-grazing, over-population, drought, desertification, famine and death.

More than 60% of Kenya's land is no longer available to the farmer, forests stand at low level of 25%, some river levels have fallen to minimum low before they disappear altogether. Crop yield have fallen, livestock industry is not what it used to be and our towns have many who are poor and unemployed. But we continue to cross bridges in our beautiful cars and aeroplanes and only give a passing glance to the study waters below, we cut our age-old indigenous trees to replace them with fast growing and economically valuable exotic ever-greens and we refuse to exert pressure where we should to avoid being unpopular and unsang. We are insensitive to the life of those others and we are perhaps ignorant of how much our own life depends on theirs. Yet Kenya is not among the worst in Africa. And so we must go beyond Kenya and help raise public awareness in otherparts of the Continent.

The financial reward will be used to establish a Trust which could be used to provide seed money for the establishment of programmes similar to the green belt movement elsewhere in Africa. We are confident that once we start such an effort would appeal to others who are concerned about the desertification processes, prolonged drought, famine and death in our region.

I thank you therefore, on my own behalf, on behalf of all the beneficiaries both current and those in years to come. I thank you for caring, for appreciating and for rewarding.

I am encouraged, strengthened and inspired by your kindness and generosity of heart and mind.

Thank you most sincerely.

  Pictures
 Videos

Wangari Maathi - The eco warrior with a smile

Publications

Time to show greatness. Guardian, January 7, 2008.

Unbowed: A memoir. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2007.

The Challenge for Africa. Pantheon, New York, 2009.

Contact

Right Livelihood Award Foundation

Head office:
Stockholmsvägen 23
122 62 Enskede
Sweden

Phone: +46 (0)8 70 20 340
Fax: +46 (0)8 70 20 338

Geneva office:
Maison de la Paix
Chemin Eugène-Rigot 2, Building 5
1202 Geneva
Switzerland

Phone: +41 (0)22 555 09 55

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