First Environmentalist
to Win Nobel Peace Prize



Dr. Wangari Maathai, the leading Kenyan environmentalist, civil rights activist, and deputy environment minister in the Ken-yan government, was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Citing her “stand at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and Africa,” the Nobel committee established a number of precedents. Dr. Maathai is the first African woman to receive the prize and it is the first time the environment has been considered as part of the struggle for peace.

However, as Dr. Maathai relates in her book, “The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience,” environmental conservation, good governance, women’s rights, and the struggle for freedom are all components of a peaceful world. For decades, Dr. Maathai labored to further women’s rights and protect the environment — often at great personal cost and under the threat of physical violence.

Dr. Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement on Earth Day 1977 as a way to combat the massive deforestation and soil erosion she saw occurring throughout Kenya, the result of corruption and poor land management. She understood that the depletion of trees was a woman’s issue, since women were the ones who gathered firewood for fuel and fetched water. With less shade to cool the ground and help retain water, a shortage of trees meant the women had to walk further to collect water and wood, and that the soil would be eroded and degraded. It meant less time at home to tend the crops, look after the children, or further their own education.

With her doctorate in biological science, Dr. Maathai knew that planting trees could radically improve the soil quality in Kenya and change women’s lives for the better. This is the mandate of the Green Belt Movement, and the subject of “The Green Belt Movement.” In the book, Dr. Maathai explains how the Green Belt Movement began, the challenges it faced, and how it has succeeded in transforming the lives of ordinary Kenyans by creating a more sustainable energy source, better food knowledge and educational opportunities, and empowering women.

Since its inception, the Green Belt Movement has planted nearly 30 million trees throughout Kenya (with a 70 percent survival rate) and provided an income for 80,000 people. They now have programs in over thirty African countries, the United States, and Haiti. As importantly, it has enabled many African women to take control of their own destiny.

Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya, East Africa in 1940. The first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, she obtained a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Biology from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas, a Master of Science (M.S.) in Biological Sciences from the University of Pittsburgh, and pursued doctoral studies in Germany and the University of Nairobi before obtaining her Ph.D. in Anatomy from the University of Nairobi. In 1976, she became Chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy, and, a year later, Associate Professor in the Department of Veterinary Anatomy, both at the University of Nairobi — the first woman in the region to attain those positions.

Professor Maathai was active in the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK) from 1976 to 1987 and was its chairperson from 1981 to 1987. It was in 1976, while serving in the NCWK, that she introduced the idea of planting trees using ordinary people. She continued to develop the idea into a broad-based, grassroots organization called the Green Belt Movement (GBM), launched in 1977. GBM’s main activity involved women’s groups planting trees to conserve the environment and empower themselves by improving their quality of life. Through GBM, Wangari Maathai has helped wo-men plant more than 30 million trees on their farms, school and church compounds across Kenya.

In December 2002, Prof. Maathai was elected to Kenya’s parliament with an overwhelming 98 percent of the vote. She now represents the Tetu constituency, Nyeri district in central Kenya (her home region). Subsequently, in January 2003, President Mwai Kibaki appointed her Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources in Kenya’s ninth parliament, a position she currently holds.
Wangari Maathai is internationally recognized for her persistent struggle for democracy, human rights and environmental conservation. She has addressed the United Nations on several occasions and spoke on behalf of women at special sessions of the General Assembly for the five-year review of the 1992 Earth Summit. She served on the Commission for Global Governance and the Commission on the Future.
Over the years, she and the Green Belt Movement have received awards, far too numerous to mention in this article.

A Discussion With Professor Wangari Maathai
What was your reaction when that you learned you had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?
At first, I was overwhelmed. The Peace Prize is an honor like no other. I was surprised because I had no idea that anyone was listening. I quickly realized that although I had been given this great honor, it was not just for me. It was also for the thousands of women who planted 30 million trees throughout Kenya as part of the Green Belt Movement. It was for those who worked to bring back democracy to Kenya through peaceful means.

I believe the Nobel committee was sending a message that protecting and restoring the environment contributes to peace; it is peace work. I always felt that our work was not simply about planting trees. It was about inspiring people to take charge of their environment, the system that governed them, their lives and their future. With the Prize, I realized the world was listening.
I celebrated by planting a tree in Nyeri, my home region, in the face of Mount Kenya. Throughout my life, the mountain has been an inspiration, as it was to generations before me. I also called on all those who care for the environment around the world to plant a tree, too. I hope millions are planted.

How are peace and democratic governance related to the environment?
I have always seen the linkages between environment and democracy. When we speak of the environment, we generally mean managing our resources properly so we can use them to improve our quality of life. We want to be able to access these resources in a healthy state. If we believe that a clean and healthy environment is a right, we cannot gain this right unless we have a democratic government that respects and acknowledges it.

If citizens do not acknowledge these rights or their responsibilities, we will not have a healthy environment. Without that, livelihoods cannot be supported, and you will not have a democratic system. Instead, people will compete over resources. We cannot alleviate poverty unless we find a way to use our natural resources sustainably.
When people are poor they do not think about the long-term consequences of their actions on a forest, a stream, a field or a species. Once that resource is degraded or lost, the poor will get that much poorer. I believe the Green Belt Movement provides one of the solutions.

In addition, many conflicts, present and past, are waged over resources, whether land, forests, minerals, oil, water or seeds. As the Earth’s resources continue to be depleted through unsustainable use, poor management and exploitation, conflicts will flare up more often, and will be more difficult to contain.

Protecting global and local environments, therefore, is essential for achieving lasting peace. It is critical that people around the world take action to reverse environmental degradation and its negative impacts on our lives and those of other species.

What are the origins of the Green Belt Movement? What impacts has it had?
I have always loved nature, but I became aware of the connection between environment and people’s lives in the mid-1970s. Rural women whom I met through the National Council of Women of Kenya, related their needs to me. They did not have enough wood for energy, or good sources of clean drinking water, or enough to eat, especially nutritious foods.

I saw that the common thread in all of this was that the environment around them was in decline. Trees were a good solution. Trees could meet women’s immediate needs and also help restore degraded ecosystems. I began to work with the women to grow tree seedlings and plant them on private land. Women were compensated for their seedlings so they received a small income.

Has this approach been shared with other countries?
Yes, in 1986 the United Nations Environment Programme encouraged the Green Belt Movement to share our approach and experiences with like-minded organizations in other parts of Africa. We developed the Pan African Green Belt Network, which has provided two-week trainings to representatives of over 30 organizations from 15 African countries. We will continue to share our experiences even more broadly, in Africa and beyond.

How did the Green Belt Movement get involved in Kenya’s pro-democracy movement?
Over the years, we realized that communities also needed to be aware of the connections between the problems they were experiencing and environmental degradation and poor governance — as well as the power they had to change the situation. This was through our civic and environmental education program. Through this training, people began to see if you have a dictatorial, irresponsible government, they can privatize your forests, your open green spaces, destroy your environment, misappropriate tax money, and ignore its responsibilities to the people. Eventually, it was through these seminars that a pro-democracy movement was created within the Green Belt Movement that joined with the larger pro-democracy movement in Kenya.

What is the significance of the tree to the Green Belt Movement?
Trees help heal the land and break the cycle of poverty and hunger. Trees also provide a source of fuel, material for building and fencing, fruits, fodder, shade and aesthetic beauty. This is particularly important for women, who are expected to overcome resource deficits. For example, by walking further to find wood for cooking and heating and clean water, and growing or gathering new sources of food as old ones disappear.

Trees, and intact forests also keep soil healthy, stem erosion, protect rivers and streams (critical sources of clean water), and promote regular rainfall so droughts are avoided. The tree is also a wonderful symbol for peace. It is living and it gives hope. Trees are also actual places of peace. Many African communities have special trees under which individual and community conflicts are resolved. In this, and in so many ways, the planting of trees lessens the potential for conflict and fosters peace.

How has your work throughout the years promoted women’s empowerment?
I placed my faith in the rural women of Kenya from the very beginning, and they have been key to the success of the Green Belt Movement. Through this hands-on method of growing and planting trees, women have seen they have real choices about whether they are going to sustain and restore the environment or destroy it.

In the process of education that takes place when someone joins the Green Belt Movement, women have become aware that planting trees or fighting to save forests from being chopped down is part of a larger mission to create a society that respects democracy, decency, adherence to the rule of law, human rights, and the rights of women.
Women also take on leadership roles, running nurseries, working with foresters, planning and implementing community-based projects for water harvesting and food security. All of these experiences contribute to developing more confidence in themselves and power over the direction of their lives.

What is the responsibility of governments in ensuring environmental protection?
In Kenya, the area of forested land has declined to less than two per cent, and the UN Environment Programme recommends a minimum of ten per cent for people. For people to thrive, the environment that sustains them must thrive. Governments need to be at the forefront of environmental protection. Without specific laws that protect the environment it is difficult to see how any delicate ecosystem can survive over the short-term, let alone the long-term. Unless there is political will and public acceptance of environmental protection around the world — because environmental management and protection is a global concern and responsibility — then the enormous benefits the environment bestows upon us may be lost, and future generations will pay the price.

What are some of the main environmental challenges in Kenya?
In Kenya, it is deforestation and desertification. Few forests are left. The population is increasing and there is not enough land for everyone to grow crops. For the last 80 years or so we have been planting exotic species for the timber industry, often in indigenous forests. As the trees are planted, people are invited to go into the forests and grow crops along with the exotic trees. This is known as the shamba system. I have been trying to convince others in government and in the community that we need to stop cutting or cultivating crops in our indigenous forests. When the forests are cleared, rivers and streams dry up, biodiversity is lost, and rainfall becomes erratic. This threatens farmers’ livelihoods and has negative impacts on other species as habitats are lost.

What is the relationship between culture and environment?
Too often, when we talk about conservation, we don’t think about culture. But during our work with the Green Belt Movement, we realized that some of the communities had lost aspects of their culture that facilitated conservation of the environment. Culture defines who we are and how we see ourselves. A new attitude toward nature provides space for a new attitude toward culture and the role it plays in sustainable development.

Mount Kenya, African’s second highest peak, is a World Heritage Site. It is topped by glaciers and is the source of many of Kenya’s rivers. Now, partly because of climate change, logging and encroachment due to crop cultivation, the glaciers are melting. Many of the rivers flowing from the mountain have dried up or their levels have declined. Biological diversity is threatened as the forests fall. Mount Kenya used to be sacred to the Kikuyu people. If the mountain was still given the reverence the culture accorded it, people would not have allowed illegal logging and clear-cutting in the forests. Cultural revival might be the only thing that stands between conservation or destruction of the environment.

What can youth do to protect the environment?
I would like to call on young people, in particular, to take inspiration from the Nobel Peace Prize. I want them to know that despite the challenges and constraints they face, there is hope. I want to encourage them to serve the common good. My experiences have taught me that service to others has its own special rewards. I also have a lot of hope in youth. Their minds do not have to be held back by old thinking about the environment. And you don’t have to be rich or give up everything to become active. Even simply using both sides of a piece of paper before recycling is conserving the environment. The situation, however, is serious because the youth of today will experience the consequences of their elders’ mismanagement of the environment.Unless we change course, the coming generations will inherit an impoverished environment that will mean a hungrier, less fertile, and more unstable world. More conflicts will erupt. Young people need to become involved in promoting environmental sustainability. Through the Green Belt Movement we have helped young people get involved in environmental activities. We have tried to instill in them the idea that protecting the environment is not just a pleasure, but also a duty.

What is your vision for the future?
The Nobel Peace Prize will encourage me to work harder for the years that are left, and inspire others so they can walk along the same path I have, for the environment and for the good of the people and the world in which we live.

I want to focus on expanding the impact of my work. I hope I will be able to do more. I want to empower a larger constituency to embrace environmental conservation as a means of achieving democracy and peace. I also want to promote cultural preservation, and encourage people to deepen their commitment to democracy and peaceful co-existence.

I am establishing the Wangari Maathai Foundation to strengthen and expand my work. I believe I am fulfilling the mandate of the Nobel committee when they recognized that my work was contributing to peace. We still have a lot to do. We know the little we are doing is making positive change. If we can multiply that several million times, we can change the world — definitely.

For information on the Green Belt Movement, see

Editor’s Note: Due to Professor Maathai’s schedule, we were unable to set up a personal interview in time for this issue. Information contained herein has been composed from several sources with permission of the Green Belt Movement.

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