Wangari Maathai

This Teaching Tolerance text profiles Wangari Maathai, who initiated a successful program to counteract deforestation in Africa.
Learning for Justice Staff
Grade Level

In poor countries it is women who most often are sustained by the forests around them. From forests they fetch their wood for fuel, animal fodder, healing herbs, fresh spring water and nutritious fruits and nuts to eat and sell. When forests are cut for timber or large-scale agriculture, women’s livelihood and the health of their families suffer. In Kenya, a modern “Johnny Appleseed” has initiated a successful program to counteract the alarming destruction of Africa’s forests. Her Green Belt Movement seeks not to preserve wildernesses, but to conserve places that have been home to people through the centuries.

Political activist and environmentalist Wangari Maathai was trained to be a leader. When she was growing up, her father, a truck driver, made sure she was brought into family discussions and valued her opinions. This was a rare occurrence in her male-dominated society. At school she was taught that her generation had to accept responsibilities for the development of their young country. Sent to the United States and Germany for her formal education, Maathai took degrees in biology, becoming Kenya’s first female Ph.D. recipient. She then became the first woman to teach and chair a department at the University of Nairobi’s Department of Veterinary Anatomy. At age 25, she was ready to look for “new challenges so that I could play my part as a leader. … I felt ready to play my role in the development of my country.”

When Maathai’s husband was elected to parliament in 1993, she formed Envirocare, a program that hired the poor to help clean up their districts. Envirocare was once given over 6,000 tree seedlings to distribute. This event started Maathai on her future course: to introduce community tree planting as a way to improve human settlements and avert desertification.

In 1977 Maathai joined the National Council of Women in Kenya, a powerful organization which represents scores of national women’s organizations, both urban and rural. She became head of its Environment and Habitat Committee, which gave her a platform to expand her ideas. On Earth Day in 1977, she mounted a rally that resulted in the planting of seven trees in honor of legendary women and men who had made contributions to their communities. With that act, Maathai’s organization, the Green Belt Movement, was born.

Green Belt’s campaign started by planting protective “green belts” to help preserve the land. They initiated tree-planting activities at schools, in national parks and in communities. Farmers, 70 percent of whom were women, were also targeted. Maathai says that “It was important to be simple and practical. … Planting trees and food crops was easy and practical as agroforestry had always been our people’s way of farming.”

The hunger for free seedlings, which were distributed to those wanting them, was there. The next step was to ensure that the green belts would generate income for the women, thus ensuring their participation as stewards of the environment. One strategy was to have women own the trees they planted, and the products from them. Wangari wanted to develop a positive change for women since they were not usually given ownership of the land they farmed.

Maathai taught women how to rear the seedlings, plant, and market them. She helped develop environmental education classes which taught professional forestry techniques. The graduates took jobs as tree nursery managers, teachers in environmental programs for children, Green Belt promoters and rangers. The Green Belt Movement also encouraged training of the handicapped and school dropouts, hoping to curb the rural migration to urban centers for better prospects.

In 1981, Maathai tried to enter politics by becoming a candidate for parliament. To do so she resigned her position at the University of Nairobi. In the end, the ruling party refused to accept her as a candidate. By then, Maathai had lost not only her university position, but also the government-sponsored housing that went with it.

Being jobless and homeless did not stop Maathai. In 1990 her activism became well known when she opposed the ruling party’s plan to use the only green space in downtown Nairobi, Uhuru Park, for a skyscraper and shopping mall. Maathai sued to stop the project, but lost the suit in court. The Green Belt Movement was thrown out of its state-owned building with the government threatening to make the group illegal. Nonetheless, foreign investors behind the skyscraper project got the word; the proposed multistory complex was halted. Even though Maathai lost the suit, she won the struggle in the real world of international economics. Maathai’s name now became a rallying point for people around the nation and the world.

In 1992 Maathai returned to the same spot where plans to build the complex had been fought. This time it was as the head of mothers of political prisoners, some of whom were prisoners of conscience. Maathai and the mothers, most of whom were between 60 and 82 years old, camped and began a hunger strike. Riot police with tear gas moved against them. One canister hit Maathai, knocking her unconscious. The mothers returned, however, and kept up the protest for a year until 52 political prisoners were released. Today the area is known as Freedom Corner. Maathai regularly returns to it to plant and water trees in memory of those who died in the struggle for freedom, justice and democracy in Kenya.

Following her support of victims of violent ethnic clashes in Western Kenya, Maathai went into hiding in 1993 in fear for her life. Because of pressure by Amnesty International, she surfaced within a month. Most recently she has been trying to get opposition parties united behind one candidate. She entered the last race herself, but was too late to mount a successful campaign.

Because of her active support for the environment and for victims of oppression, Maathai has been honored around the world. She has received the Right Livelihood Award, called “the alternative Nobel Peace Prize,” the U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP) Global 500 Award, and the 1991 Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger, as well as other awards. One of the founders of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), Maathai co-chairs its international board of directors. The Green Belt Movement, which Maathai still coordinates, has gone international with branches in 13 countries, including the United States. Groups from other countries have come to Kenya to study the movement’s ideas, and Maathai travels to numerous international conferences as an honored speaker. In the years ahead, she is planning to expand her activism into three new areas which are becoming critically important in Kenya: food security, health and the welfare of children, particularly the increasing numbers of street children.

Over the decades, Green Belt members have planted millions of trees that have produced income for tens of thousands of families. Eighty percent of the 15 million seedlings first planted have matured, encouraging the Kenyan government to increase spending for more tree seedlings. The success of this grassroots attempt to combine community development and environmental protection has proven Maathai correct when she states that environmental degradation can be reversed. But protecting forests is not only the responsibility of governments and foresters, she says. “The responsibility is ours individually.”


Time Line: Kenya

Half of Africa’s forests have been felled. Kenya’s forest cover is 2.9 percent of what it once was. The Mt. Kenya Forest has thousands of acres of bare ground.

Kenya wins political independence from the United Kingdom. Currently, Jomo Kenyatta’s son heads the government.

Women’s groups proliferate in Kenya, numbering 6,800 by 1977. Many focus on development, teaching women new farming techniques and income-generating projects.

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) impose economic reforms on developing countries who owe them debt. One requirement is that the countries increase their exports to generate foreign exchange to help pay their debts. One result is a shift from growing diverse food crops for domestic consumption to increased production of cash crops for export. Export of natural resources, such as timber, is also encouraged, leading to deforestation, soil erosion and desertification.

Government clamps down on civil freedoms in this period of growing agitation for multiparty democracy. In 1982 President Moi alters the constitution, making Kenya a one-party state. University students and professors, journalists, civil servants, farmers, even air force personnel, are arrested and convicted of treason.

International Women’s Congress on the Environment held in Miami.

U.N. Earth Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro. Women’s groups argue that since women bear the brunt of environmental degradation, they are most likely to seek solutions to it. Women must be included in environmental policy-making.

Ethnic violence flares amongst the Kenyan people. By the end of the year, over 1,500 people have been killed, and more than 300,000 displaced. There is strong evidence that the violence is instigated by the government, which blames it on opposition parties, government critics, human rights activists and the media.

President Moi allows multiparty election to take place. Opposition parties fail to unite around one candidate. Daniel arap Moi wins election and KANU remains in power.

Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    Reread the first paragraph. What is the Green Belt Movement and why did it start?
    It is Maathai’s organization that she started to plant trees in order to preserve the land.
  2. Question
    Maathai was an accomplished scholar. Why did she return home to Kenya?
    She felt called to play her role in helping to develop Kenya.
  3. Question
    Reread the paragraph that begins, “The hunger for free seedlings.”
    A. What does it mean to ensure something happens?
    To ensure something happens means to make sure it happens.
  4. Question
    Reread the paragraph that begins, “The hunger for free seedlings.”
    B. Why did Maathai think it effective to ensure the plantings led to money for the women?
    If the women earned money from the seedlings as they grew into trees and produced things like fruit, for example, they would feel ownership over the trees and a commitment to them and to the environment. In this way, Maathai was tying their livelihood to the success of the plantings.
  5. Question
    Reread the paragraph that begins, “The hunger for free seedlings.”
    C. How did this idea differ from the women’s usual experience?
    They did not own the land or products they farmed. It can be inferred that men did.
Reveal Answers
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