Africa’s Green Belt

Wangari Maathai’s Movement is Built on the Power of Trees

On a winter day in 1999, Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai was doing what comes naturally to her: planting trees. As in Thailand, where a Buddhist monk who protected trees by ordaining them was thrown in jail, Maathai’s activities made the authorities uneasy. The seedlings that Maathai and her cohorts in the Green Belt Movement were attempting to plant replaced trees felled by real estate developers, whose private security guards were reportedly behind an attack that left Maathai’s head gashed and many of her supporters injured.

Danger is nothing new to Maathai. The 1999 incident represented the third physical assault on the courageous activist in recent years. In 1992, she was clubbed unconscious by police during a hunger strike and was hospitalized in critical condition. She can expect no protection from the Kenyan government: President Daniel arap Moi has called her "a mad woman" who is "a threat to the order and security of the country"; a government minister recently called her "an ignorant and ill-tempered puppet of foreign masters."

This "ignorant puppet" also happens to be the first woman from East and Central Africa to receive a doctoral degree (in veterinary medicine). Despite the near-constant intimidation, Maathai’s Green Belt Movement, founded in 1977, has planted 20 million trees. Maathai launched the movement, she says, because "the Earth was naked. For me, the mission was to try to cover it with green." In 1986, it expanded beyond Kenya with the establishment of the Pan African Green Belt Network. Making the link between environmental degradation and jobs, the network buys seedlings from indigenous cultivators—mainly women—and promotes food security.

Maathai has won many honors, including the Goldman Prize, the Right Livelihood Award, the United Nations" Africa Prize for Leadership and the Golden Ark Award. In the spring semester of 2002, she served as a visiting fellow at Yale University, and E was able to spend some time with this buoyant woman, whose brightly colored African clothing made an impression among the gray suits at Manhattan’s Yale Club.

E asked Maathai about the concurrent struggles for justice, women’s rights and the environment, which are all tied together in her work. "They interact so closely that you can’t have one without the other," she says. "Governments that oppress people are the same ones that are not sensitive to people’s livelihoods or to the environment."

Are there parallels between Maathai’s work and the struggle for environmental justice in the U.S.? "It is not quite the same," she says, "because Africa is not yet very industrialized. But you do see in the city of Nairobi that the garbage is disposed of in the poorer areas, which are also where they locate the sewage treatment plants."

Affected communities in both Africa and the U.S., she adds, don’t always know the facts about their exposure. "The manufacturers know, the government may know, the environmental agencies may know, but the communities don"t, and that is very dangerous and very sad. Poverty deprives people of knowledge. But empowered people can rise up, so raising awareness is a very important part of what we do."

In Kenya, Maathai says, government corruption is a major cause of deforestation and pollution—regardless of what laws may be on the books. "I see what our government is doing in the supposedly protected forests, which have been clear cut or planted in marijuana for export," she says. "There is a lucrative trade in wood from illegally logged trees. These are very dangerous elements in the government, lured by the money they can make from such clandestine activities. And when a system is that weak and rotten, if you don’t raise your voice, then your environmentalism means nothing; it’s mere tokenism or opportunism."

The Green Belt Movement’s supporters in the West may be surprised to learn that all the accolades Maathai has received do not necessarily translate into financial support, or, indeed, protection from harassment. "And because we have been very critical of our government, we have found it very difficult to fundraise," she says. "Many of the people who could support us monetarily are tied in with that government, or represent international organizations that want favors from the government. But because of the honors, people tend to think we have a lot of money."

Maathai has received some support from the governments of both Australia and the Netherlands, and if she has a patron in the U.S., it’s the Massachusetts-based Marion Foundation, which works directly with selected grantees to help them reach their goals. According to Mike Henkle, the foundation’s communications director, "It’s very hard for her to raise money inside Kenya, so we create situations for her to network and fundraise in the U.S." Marion has raised $290,000 for Maathai, and plans to raise another $800,000 over the next three years. In addition to the Green Belt Movement, the foundation’s partners include the U.S.-based Lionheart Foundation, which works with prisoners; and the Solar Electric Light Fund, which promotes rural solar power in developing countries.

The Green Belt Movement threatens entrenched power, Maathai says, "because it empowers women, and women are very much the center of what we do." Despite continuing and constant opposition, the movement grows and expands. "It really shows that something can be done," she says. "Sometimes I marvel at the work we’ve done, despite the fact that maybe half of our time is spent just trying to survive, and I wonder what we would have achieved if the government were supporting us instead of intimidating us. Africans can do a lot to serve their environments, but there is a great need for African leaders to wake up."