In 1977, Wangari Maathai founded the expansive Green Belt Movement (GBM), a network that is today composed of 200 organizations engaging more than 20,000 members in environmental and civic activism.
The movement, founded under the auspices of the National Council of Women for Kenya, placed environmental conservation at the center of development in Kenya. Throughout Africa, Maathai noted, women are the primary caretakers tilling the land to feed their families, and are therefore often the first to become aware of environmental damage and shrinking resources. Women reported that streams were drying up, food supplies were dwindling, and they had to walk further and further to get firewood. Environmental degradation and the introduction of commercial farming — which replaced the growing of household food crops — were driving resource scarcity. International trade controlled the price of exports from the small-scale farmers, and the possibility for right livelihoods was therefore also shrinking.
GBM encouraged 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. Women organized to plant trees, protest deforestation and more, and since the founding of the organization, more than 51 million trees have been planted in Kenya. As Maathai said, “If you destroy the forest then the river will stop flowing, the rains will become irregular, the crops will fail and you will die of hunger and starvation.” GBM uses an approach that is integrated with the local environment, and that is aimed to be to sustainably support and diversify sources of income for the communities neighboring the forest. The organization also plants trees on public lands with faith based groups and schools, and has a partnership with the Kenyan Army to help access remote areas for planting on army lands.
As she worked to build GBM, Maathai noted that behind the everyday hardships of the poor – environmental degradation, deforestation, and food insecurity – were deeper issues of disempowerment and disenfranchisement. GBM therefore started providing seminars in civic and environmental education.
Maathai became the well-known face of a movement powered by grassroots activism comprised of women. Using this, and as the first woman from East and Central Africa to earn a doctoral degree, as well as the first to be hired to the University of Nairobi’s faculty, Maathai stood to oppose Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi’s 24-year regime by running for parliament. She won a seat with 98% of the vote. Her decision to enter politics forced her to give up her position as associate professor at the University of Nairobi. She was arrested and jailed several times throughout her career and suffered physical attacks and injuries for participating in various protests. The Kenyan government and its media outlets engaged in a counter-campaign to intimidate and de-legitimize her, and Maathai was reportedly briefly placed on a list of government assassination targets due to her participation in pro-democracy activism.
Her efforts as an opposition figure and that of the Green Belt Movement were recognized internationally when she became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize (2004). The Nobel committee cited her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace” as the reason for awarding Maathai the prize. Through a combination of a dedicated base of supporters, local collaborators, international sympathizers and her own force of will, she continually won victories on behalf of democratic freedoms.
After Maathai’s death in 2011, the Green Belt Movement has continued to carry on her spirit by planting trees, providing civic education, and demanding accountability from government leaders. The organization’s methods are also being spread throughout the continent through trainings, helping groups of women take charge of adaptation efforts against climate change.
Learn more: www.greenbeltmovement.org