Women in the Environment: Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement

Guest Post by Madeline Boyd, WMEAC Women in Environment Intern

Since meeting Winona LaDuke, I have reflecting a lot on grassroots environmental movements and how simple ideas can have a huge impact on a complex problem. The first person that comes to mind is Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement. I am continually inspired by Wangari Maathai and the success of the Green Belt Movement (GBM) because it came from humble beginnings, teaching rural women how to plant trees.

Professor Maathai established GBM in response to reports from rural Kenyan women of the drying up of streams, the increased food insecurity, and the difficulty acquiring firewood. She had the brilliant idea to teach them how to grow seedlings which GBM could buy, providing them with a small token for their efforts. Not only does this strategy restore soil quality, reduce runoff, store rainwater, and provide food and firewood through the process of planting tree, it also increases rural women’s financial security, allowing them to invest in livestock and crops in the community.

Soon after establishing GBM in 1977, Professor Maathai began to understand the issues of environmental degradation, deforestation, and food insecurity as a result of Kenya’s colonization from 1895 to 1963. The effects of colonization on any community are considerable, and environmental impact is no exception. With colonization comes a devaluing of native communities through a push for industrialization. During British rule in Kenya, the Empire industrialized farming practices to move away from subsistence farming used across Africa and tied closely to cultural traditions. The disenfranchisement, disempowerment, and loss of traditional values in rural Kenyan communities as a result of the switch to export agriculture is very similar to that of Native American communities in the United States. Winona LaDuke spoke at length about the importance of the environment to Native communities, and Kenya is no different.

What I find most inspiring about LaDuke’s and Maathai’s vision of environmental justice is the way they empower their communities to make change on their own terms. For centuries, local and native communities have been devalued, disempowered, and disenfranchised. I’m inspired by their ability to hold on to the cultural traditions that tie them to the environment and to see all walks of life as one.

I want to leave you with a story from Wangari Maathai which continues to inspire me.

We are constantly bombarded with problems that we face and sometimes we can get completely overwhelmed. The story of the hummingbird is about this huge forest being consumed by a fire. All the animals from the forest come up and are transfixed as they watch the fire burning and they feel very overwhelmed, very powerless. Except this little hummingbird who says, ‘I’m going to do something about this fire.’ So it flies to the nearest stream and takes a drop of water, puts it on the fire and goes up and down, up and down, up and down as fast as it can. In the meantime all the other animals, much bigger animals like the elephant with the big trunk, could bring much more water, they are standing there helpless. And they start saying to the hummingbird, ‘What do you think you can do? You are too small, the fire is too big. Your wings are too little and your beak so small. You can only bring a small drop of water.’ But as they continue to discourage it, the hummingbird turns to them without wasting any time and tells them ‘I’m doing the best I can.’ And that to me is what all of us should do. We should all try to be the hummingbird.

Wangari Mathaai definitely was a hummingbird. Since its creation in 1977, the Green Belt Movement has spread all over Kenya and has planted more than 51 million trees. Wangari Mathaai also became the first African woman to receive a Nobel Peace prize in 2004 and was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem before her death in 2011.

You can find out more on Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement at their website.

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