Green Belts and Green Revolutions

International Women Organize Against Agribusiness and Environmental Degradation

Vandana Shiva and Wangari Maathai have much in common. They’ve both won Sweden’s Right Livelihood Award (the Alternative Nobel Prize) and been named as two of Utne Reader‘s Top 100 Visionaries for 1995. And both were speakers at the Fourth World Congress on Women in Beijing in 1995 and the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. Both activists are also prime evidence of how women are changing the face of environmental politics—from the ground up.

One of India’s sharpest critics of foreign aid and free trade policies that favor multinational corporations, Vandana Shiva has fought for every inch of India’s improved environmental policies, not to mention convincing communities that runaway development leads to ecological destruction. Shiva, a physicist, president of India’s Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy, and author of Monocultures of the Mind, EcoFeminism and The Violence of the Green Revolution, is known internationally for organizing the Chipko movement-in which women literally hug trees to prevent foresters from clear-cutting.

Shiva says, “The modern world has built its ideas of nature and culture on the model of the industrial factory-judging a forest, for example, on the worth of its timber rather than its life-support capacity.” Traveling the world speaking against industrial and multi-national development, as well as politicizing the role women, children and farmers have as caretakers of the land, Shiva devotes her energy to convincing others their livelihood lies in respecting nature and promoting diversity, which will lead to more sustainable farming and living. “The extinction of people’s livelihoods and sustenance is closely connected with the erosion of biodiversity,” and “the practice of diversity is the key to its conservation,” Shiva wrote.

On Earth Day in 1977, Kenya’s Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement by planting seven trees in her backyard. The grassroots organization which grew from there encourages environmental protection by women and children. Because of the movement, over 15 million trees have been planted in Kenya, producing income for over 80,000 people. The movement has expanded to over 30 countries in Africa, and has a U.S. branch as well. Because half of Africa’s forests have been felled in this century, and Kenya’s oil, electricity and coal are imported, the majority depend on firewood for fuel and wood shortages are high.

According to Maathai, when fuel is scarce, people suffer from malnutrition, overcultivated fields create erosion, and landcover loss exposes the Earth to forces which create barren wastelands. Maathai estimates that Kenya’s forest cover is 2.9 percent of what it once was, and she emphasizes the fact that “poverty and need have a very close realtionship with a degraded environment.”

As a member of the National Council of Women of Kenya, Maathai began encouraging farmers, 70 percent of whom are women, to plant protective “green belts” of trees to help preserve the land, which included indigenous species like acacias, cedars, citrus trees and figs. Seedlings are distributed free of charge to groups and individuals wanting to promote local “green belts,” and over 1,500 tree nurseries have been started. By now, 80 percent of the 15 million seedlings have matured, encouraging the Kenyan government to increase spendings 20-fold on tree plantings.

As a result of her blatant activism against non-environmental practices, Maathai has been jailed and beaten for her political activism, as well as earning the enmity of President Daniel arap Moi and his ruling faction after she rallied local protest against a $200 million development project.

But beyond politics, Maathai says it all starts with something very local, the planting of just one tree. “We tend to think that protecting our forests is the responsibility of the government and the foresters. It is not. The responsibility is ours individually.”