Partners in Africa: The Green Belt Movement (Nurturing people by planting trees.)

Nature Conservancy Magazine: Spring 2007

The life of Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai evokes the fable of Jack and the beanstalk: She planted some trees, and they magically grew into a social revolution. The Green Belt Movement—the Kenyan group she started in 1977—has planted more than 30 million trees. Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her reforestation work and its role in reshaping the political future of Kenya.
In the 1960s, a scholarship program took her to America for college and graduate school. She returned home to earn her Ph.D. and become a professor at the University of Nairobi. Slowly she became aware of the side effects of prolonged deforestation: massive erosion, rivers running brown with silt, firewood shortages, too much farmland given over to logging and cash crops like tea.
A simple solution occurred to her: Organize small groups of people to plant seedlings and rejuvenate stripped forests. The Green Belt Movement was born.
For each seedling each person planted and nurtured, Maathai offered a token payment of a few cents. The army of Green Belt volunteers has now swollen to 100,000—most of them women.
Beyond planting millions of trees, the movement morphed into a pro-democracy, pro-environment alliance that rattled Kenya’s de facto dictator, President Daniel arap Moi. Maathai was harassed, beaten and eventually jailed. But democracy took root. In 2002, Moi relinquished power to a popularly elected president. Wangari Maathai was elected to parliament and later made assistant environment minister. Then came the Nobel prize.
Julius Githaiga celebrated that news by planting trees. "That’s our happiness," he says. Githaiga is 43, built tall and thin. He works a multigeneration family farm in Kenya’s Aberdare highlands and has become an avid Green Belt Movement disciple. "It has uplifted our lives so much," he says. "I never knew that conservation was my right."
A section of his farm serves as a Green Belt nursery. He, his brothers and some neighbors tend several thousand seedlings germinating in neat rows. Githaiga estimates he himself has planted 5,000 trees in nearby Tumutumu Forest.
Before we came and planted, it was bare," he says proudly, standing atop a hill in Tumutumu. "My kids will come here when the forest is back. This is food for their future."
The Green Belt Movement has around 70 employees and aspires to become a larger, more mainstream organization. To that end, The Nature Conservancy has provided information system software that makes possible sophisticated project tracking. The data might be used to determine what tree species grow best in certain soil conditions or to generate before-and-after maps of reforested plots.
"The Nature Conservancy has developed skills to work in a big way. We will benefit a lot from their experience," says Maathai. "The Conservancy can increase our capacity, especially in areas of monitoring, evaluating and reporting. People want to know: ‘What have you done?’" Through the Conservancy’s Adopt-an-Acre partnership, Green Belt plans to expand its operations to plant more trees and promote sustainable-livelihood projects like beekeeping.
In the meantime, Maathai wants to export her green-democracy "campaign" to other countries. "What we need to do is involve the African people to help themselves," she says, "not do things for them." —T.D.
Nature picture credits : Photo © Martin Rowe (Wangari Maathai); Henner Frankenfeld/Redux (Green Belt Movement)