International Women's Issues

International Women’s Issues: Wangari Maathai and Environmentalism in Kenya

On September 26, 2011, the world lost a great force for good: Wangari Maathai passed away. I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay homage to the work of this amazing woman. She was a professor, an environmentalist, a scientist, an activist for democracy and human rights, a parlimentarian, a peacemaker, and so much more. She’s the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. To say that Wangari Maathai was a badass would be an understatement so great it borders on disrespectful.

Maathai founded and lead the Green Belt Movement, a non-governmental organization that combined fighting desertification with women’s empowerment. Her other achievements are more than notable, and indeed, too many to list (please visit here for a full account) so what I’m going to focus on is the intersection of environmental activism and improving the standard of living for many Kenyan women.

To give a bit of background, life in rural Kenya for many women involves hours of hard labor, fetching water and gathering firewood. Women are also the main farmers in Kenya, producing over 80% of food crops in the country.  Due to global warming, 80% of Kenya is at risk for desertification. Desertification is worse than simple drought ““ it means that the land itself is degrading, in climates that are already pretty dry (arid, semi-arid, or sub-humid, if you want to be particular). This land degradation involves soil erosion, water scarcity, reduced agricultural output, and loss of vegetation and biodiversity. Compare the list of the effects of desertification with the responsibilities of rural Kenyan women ““ they completely overlap.

In the early 1970s, Professor Maathai was a member of the National Council of Women of Kenya, an umbrella women’s rights NGO founded shortly after Kenyan independence. As part of her work with NCWK, she met with rural Kenyan women, who told her of their challenges ““ miles walked each day for water, scarce firewood, and soil that yielded less food every year. Maathai suggested that these women start planting trees, as that would provide firewood and fodder for animals, prevent soil erosion, and protect watersheds. In 1977, the Green Belt Movement was formally born, with just that goal ““ planting trees to improve not only the environment, but also women’s lives.

According to the Green Belt Movement’s first Annual Report, published in 2003, participating in the GBM was a 10-step process. They begin with informational seminars, and people from local communities wishing to participate form into groups. These groups receive education and training, enabling them to take responsibility for tree nurseries and seed-sowing. The trees grown are from both locally-found and GBM-provided seeds, and the groups send monthly reports to GBM on the status of their seedlings and nursery. Once the seedlings are ready to be planted, they are made available to the entire community ““ provided that whoever is taking a seedling for planting has dug a hole that passes inspection by one of the group members. After the seedlings have been planted, the group members receive a partial payment from GBM, in recognition of the effort they put into raising the seedlings. After the seedlings have been in the ground for three months, provided they survive, the group receives a second payment from GBM ““ trees cared for carefully in the first three months are very likely to survive.

It’s that simple. And it changed a country. At its height, more than 100,000 people, mostly women, were participating in GBM, and they have planted more than 47 million trees. Forty-seven million! And in addition to the quality-of-life improvements that were the initial goals of the tree-planting, there are other intangible benefits. Through participation in GBM, women have developed leadership skills, generated income, and been given a solid reason to have hope for a better tomorrow.

The Green Belt Movement has expanded, both in scope and reach. In addition to tree-planting, GBM runs a variety of educational programs, promotes sustainable farming, and does advocacy for environmental causes. There is also now Green Belt Movement International, a pan-African organization that is currently active in 15 countries, putting the same community tree-planting system into effect across the continent.

I have focused above on the explicit stated purpose of the Green Belt Movement ““ to plant trees and empower women. However, I must at least touch upon the GBM and Professor Maathai’s impact on the political scene in Kenya. From 1978 to 2002, Kenya was lead by an increasingly-authoritarian government, headed by Daniel arap Moi. Maathai was an open critic of the government’s undemocratic ways, and she and her supporters were beaten and jailed for speaking out against the regime. Even in the face of this violence, Maathai and the GBM coordinated protests which successfully stopped the building of a skyscraper in Nairobi, and more importantly, held a successful year-long vigil for the release of political prisoners, which some credit as the beginning of the downfall of Moi’s regime.

In post-Moi Kenya, not only was the planting of trees expanded onto government-owned lands and forests, but Maathai also became a democratically-elected member of Parliament and later an Assistant Minister, all the while ensuring the needs of women and the environment were at the forefront of government policy. In the unrest that followed the 2007 elections, Professor Maathai was a key voice for peace, and mediated many disputes. Her impact on the new 2010 Kenyan Constitution is clearly visible.

One last note – as girl’s education in the Global South is something I’m very interested in, I can’t help but point out this line in the Green Belt Movement’s biography of Maathai: “She went to school at the instigation of her elder brother, Nderitu.” Admittedly, this was in the 1940s and “˜50s, and there’s been a massive improvement in the accessibility of education since then, but even so ““ Maathai had privileges that were denied, and still are denied, to many women worldwide. She went to both college and graduate school in the U.S. While western education is FAR from a kingmaker, her education did open doors for her.

There are other women who may have had Maathai’s brilliance, drive, and capacity for greatness, but in being denied even elementary education, were and are not able to realize their full potential. These nameless, faceless women still work every day to improve their lives and the lives of the people in their community. I wish I could write about every one of them, about every battle fought that resulted in a better life. But I can’t, I don’t know them. Ban-Ki Moon will not speak eloquently upon their deaths. So when we remember this one amazing woman, let’s all take a moment to think of all her sisters as well.

If the information I’ve provided above has piqued your interest, please delve deeper into Maathai’s work in her own words. She has published four books: The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience; The Challenge for Africa; Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World; and an autobiography, Unbowed.


2003 Annual Report, The Green Belt Movement, 2004.

Africa Review Report on Drought and Desertification, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, 2008.

“Daniel arap Moi”, Wikipedia.

Doss, C.R.. Twenty-Five Years of Research on Women Farmers in Africa: Lessons and Implications for Agricultural Research Institutions; with an Annotated Bibliography. CIMMYT Economics Program Paper No. 99-02. 1999.

Africa Review Report on Drought and Desertification, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, 2008.

The Green Belt Movement, and various sub-sites.

“Wangari Maathai: Death of an Icon”, Mwenda Wa Micheni, Africa Review, published 9/26/11,


3 replies on “International Women’s Issues: Wangari Maathai and Environmentalism in Kenya”

Leave a Reply