Nobel prize winner, environmentalist, and professor Wangari Maathai created the “Green Belt Movement”, an initiative to prevent environmental degradation linked to commercial deforestation across Kenya. During the 1970s and onwards, colonial and post-colonial pressures forced Kenyan farmers to grow cash crops such as tea and coffee for the foreign market, rather than the traditional crops they had been growing to support their communities (Gorsevski, 2012; Maathai, 2003). To make space for such agricultural production, large swathes of forest were destroyed, devastating the rural communities dependant on locally produced food, firewood from the forests and clean water from the rivers, which were now being polluted by agricultural runoff.
These changes inspired Maathai to set up the “Green Belt Movement” in 1977, engaging women across Africa to plant trees (Gorsevski, 2012). It’s focus on women was vital, considering that it was women, in their traditional role as homemaker, who were disproportionately affected by these environmental changes (Muthuki, 2006). Through getting involved in the Green Belt Movement, women improved their access to essential foods and firewood – but also became self-sufficient, independent, and able to earn their own income. In fact, by the early 2000s, six thousand tree nurseries, created and run by women, had been set up across Africa, employing over 100,000 people (Maathai, 2003).
Maathai’s incessant determination to improve the lives of women across Africa saw the Green Belt Movement form another association, the Women for Change program. Since being set up in 2003, the charity has developed a huge range of ways to tackle poverty within Kenya, through the education of women on topics including sexual health and finance, to offering micro-loans to support small businesses (womenforchangeorganization.org). It has also trained women in profitable skills such as bee-keeping, and provided tuition to young girls to continue their academic pursuits (Maathai, 2003).
Through setting up the Green Belt Movement, as well as through her political advocacy and protesting, Maathai challenged the traditional patriarchal society in which she was living, empowered millions of women and demonstrated how environmental sustainability can be a pathway to peace:
“In awarding Maathai the Nobel peace prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee acknowledged connections between peace, environmentalism, democracy, sustainable development and the importance of human rights, particularly women’s rights, in international politics” – Muthuki, 2006
Through encouraging cooperation rather than competition, and by highlighting the links between social and economic issues with environmental solutions, her programs brought widespread attention to sustainability, and to the opportunities which arise when women are given equal status to men. Her life and career was fraught with protests, governmental oppression and violence – but her resilience and passion led to the development of a range of enormous associations working to improve lives across Africa today. By 2005, over 15 African countries had joined up with the Green Belt Movement and over 51 million trees have been planted (greenbeltmovement.org).
“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 of creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come” – Wangari Maathai
Wangari Maathai was a remarkable woman: Read more about her projects and biography below…
Gorsevski, E.W. (2012) Wangari Maathai’s emplaced rhetoric: Greening global peacebuilding. Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture, 6(3), pp.290-307
Maathai, W. (2003) The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the approach and the experience. Lantern Books
Muthuki, J. (2006) Challenging patriarchal structures: Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt movement in Kenya. Agenda, 20(69), pp.83-91
Read more about…