“We can be challenged to embrace a new beginning”: celebrating Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, and her tree-planting movement

Today, March 3, marks not only Africa Environment Day but also celebrates the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai. A strong advocate for democracy, human rights and environmental conservation, Maathai founded a very powerful initiative that continues its impressive legacy today: the Green Belt Movement. At Little Sun, we believe climate activism and initiatives like the Green Belt Movement are crucial for instigating positive change to ensure our planet’s survival.

It was through this important movement that rural communities – and women and girls in particular – were empowered to proactively conserve their environment as well as improve their own livelihoods. How? Simply by planting trees. 

Since its conception in 1977, the Green Belt Movement has now planted a total of over 51 million trees, impacting these communities for the better.

“GMB works at the grassroots, national, and international levels to promote environmental conservation; to build climate resilience and empower communities [to] foster democratic [spaces] and sustainable livelihoods”

From 1 tree to 51 million: where did it all begin?

In 1977, Maathai was conducting some research on the fields of Nairobi when she noticed a great deal of deforestation and soil loss. More and more rural women were also reporting constraints on their own resources because of this soil loss. Wangari learnt that they had invested their time and land into fast ‘cash crops’ like coffee and tea, for which they were now paying the price.

Streams were drying up, firewood was becoming inaccessible, and food supplies were getting increasingly unreliable. Environmental degradation was proving to be a growing threat that affected all aspects of their livelihood, and action was needed.

“Tree planting became a natural choice to address some of the initial basic needs, identified by women”, said Maathai. “[It’s] simple, attainable and it guarantees quick successful results within a reasonable amount of time.” A tree-planting movement was born.

Empowerment through education

Initially, Maathai posed a simple question to the local women: “why not plant trees?” However, it soon became apparent that there was a lack of knowledge as to how to do so. This was the prompt for the Green Belt Movement to begin, with the aim of learning – and consequently educating – to improve livelihoods.

Working together with local women, GBM organised foresters to educate them on how to plant trees. And It was important for Matthai that this initiative found a holistic solution, rather than a quick fix. She didn’t want to create more dependence on GBM giving the locals some seeds and, consequently, having these women continue to rely on GBM in the long-term. 

The movement was instead rooted in bringing a real sense of personal agency. Having learnt how to grow seedlings and plant trees to bind the soil, local women continued this learning and also passed this education on to others, creating a ripple effect. What was once increasingly arid land, soon became filled with clean water and other natural resources.

“A poor person will cut their last tree to cook for maybe their last meal. They’re not worried about tomorrow. On the other hand, [we need to] understand that the more you degrade your environment, the more you are likely to dig yourself deeper into poverty”

Understanding the underlying challenges

Through the Green Belt Movement, an understanding grew for the deeper challenges at play. Namely, a combination of poor governance, disempowerment, disenfranchisement and a loss of traditional values – all of which, contributed to the inability for local women to protect their environment and manage their resources wisely. 

And as environmental conservation was not prioritised – and often sabotaged – by governments in power, it became crucial for the GBM to encourage individuals to examine how they lacked agency in changing their own environmental and social position. 

The solution cycle: effective aid

Tree planting, consequently, allowed women not only to overcome their own sense of helplessness but also self-govern. A solution cycle began. For each matured seedling planted, local women would receive a small monetary token for their reforestation efforts. And through this monetary token, they were encouraged to invest in other income-generating activities. 

In the Gakanga tree planting site in Central Province, Kenya, locals now plant Grevillea trees at the edge of farms to sell them for timber. They also have beehives on loan from GBM and look after them to sell honey. And, they invest in breeds of disease-resistant goats originally from Germany, so they can produce and sell milk. 

Through this circular approach in problem-solving that local women – from 1977 to 2020 – have taken back their agency over their environment and future livelihoods, particularly in their economic and social position. 

“Sustainable livelihood starts with education and ends with empowerment…And it all started with planting that one tree.”

The Green Belt Movement continues to focus on community development work that champions democracy, environmental justice and community empowerment.

Guest Author: Lauren Grant

Photo Credits: Green Belt Movement, UNEP, Lisa Merton