October 2006  
Family Tree: The Green Belt Movement's Wangari Maathai and Wanjira Mathai
by Cameron Walker

In her new memoir, Unbowed, Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai recounts the story of an epic kidney bean harvest. When Maathai was in elementary school, she set off with the donkey to the family farm to gather beans because her mother was sick. At the end of the day, she slung one sack of beans over the donkey, put a half-sack over her own shoulder, and headed home. When they reached the homestead, the exhausted pair collapsed.

"My mother ran out of the house and could not believe what she saw: a donkey and her daughter lying exhausted next to each other," Maathai writes. "'How did you make it?' she cried. 'These are enormous sacks of beans!'"

Many would ask Maathai a similar question about her Green Belt Movement. Since 1977, she has been working with Kenyan women to plant trees as a way of aiding both the environment and women's empowerment. Together these women (along with a few men) have planted an enormous number of trees, over 30 million to be exact.

When Maathai thinks about all the work that has gone into the Green Belt Movement in the past thirty years, she finds herself recalling her superhuman efforts with donkey and kidney beans in tow: "That incident has remained with me through the years and reminds me that, while it's perhaps sometimes foolhardy to take on something that's too big for you, it is incredible what you can achieve if you are single-minded enough," she writes. "To walk all that way and thrash the beans and then carry them back: Even my mother never forgot that journey!"

Likewise, the world will probably find it difficult to forget the Green Belt Movement's journey, from tiny seed to thriving forest, any time soon.

Foresters Without Diplomas

During the 1970s, Maathai recounts a growing environmental awareness germinating the idea for The Green Belt Movement. One of the fertilizers: a seminar she attended as a member of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). At the event, a female researcher talked of growing malnutrition and disease in Maathai's home region of central Kenya. Maathai, who remembered her birthplace as a fertile land, made the connection between growing rural challenges and environmental degradation.

"I didn't sit down and ask myself, 'Now let me see, what shall I do?'" she writes. "It just came to me. 'Why not plant trees?'"

Tree planting started in earnest in 1977. While professional foresters wondered why the movement was using rural women instead of trained tree-planters, Maathai understood these women were lifelong farmers who could pass knowledge between communities quickly. With the Green Belt Movement's help, groups of 10 to 15 women (and sometimes men) would establish a tree nursery, caring for the trees as a group. Initially, they planted young trees on their own land. After three months, if the seedlings survived, the group was compensated for the seedlings.

During the first phase of the Green Belt Movement, from 1977 to 1997, women were given one shilling for planting each exotic tree, and two shillings for planting each native tree. Mature trees could be used to provide additional income for women, who could sell firewood or fruits, or reap other gains through improved soil conditions. By 1997, more than 20 million trees had been planted.

The program has since shifted to a second phase, planting trees on public lands. Tree planters now receive five to ten shillings for each thriving tree, with the emphasis mainly on native species.

Wanjira Mathai, Maathai's daughter and the Green Belt Movement's internation liason, says the group still faces some resistance: "There is the challenge, of course, of trying to protect the commons, trying to encourage people to plant more trees in areas which are not seen as their own property."

But planting trees is just the beginning. "The tree planting is, we believe, the entry point," Mathai says, into addressing a range of community issues. When a community asks the Green Belt Movement how to get started, the group holds a three-day workshop for civic and environmental education. These seminars bring communities together to explore the problems confronting them. "They come and they discuss the challenges they face every day," she says, "whether it's lack of food, lack of water, challenges of too much erosion."

These communities usually come to an understanding of the importance of protecting the environment, creating, Mathai says, "a deeper sense of why we are doing this."

Over the years, the Green Belt Movement has added education, advocacy, and health programs to its work. And now, it is using the carbon market to spread its many branches even further. "The Green Belt Movement is beginning to get involved in the carbon market as well, especially the voluntary carbon market," says Mathai.

In April, the Basque government's department of environment and regional planning signed an agreement with Maathai for a three-year reforestation project in Kenya—a project intended to neutralize the department's carbon emissions with 37,000 newly planted trees; in September, the Basque government followed suit, agreeing to plant 232,000 trees.

The group is also working with the World Bank to understand the compliance market better, says Mathai, but they expect this process will take more time. Fortunately, patience is one thing both mother and daughter learned during the last several decades.

The Family Tree, The Flame Tree

Maathai, educated in Kenya, the United States and Germany, experienced discrimination as the first woman in her many roles at the University of Nairobi. Throughout her career, and particularly as the environmental movement expanded to become a pro-democracy movement in Kenya, she was beaten and jailed several times and was disparaged in Parliament and the press.

As a child, Mathai says she knew about the Green Belt Movement and occasionally went with her mother to meetings but was never formerly involved. Still, in an interview last year with DemocracyNow!'s Amy Goodman, Mathai said that by the late 1980s, she understood that something in Kenya was not right. One of Maathai's three children, she received graduate degrees in public health and business from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Fresh out of business school she says she knew, "I wanted to do something different."

She returned to Kenya to regroup. While she planned her next move, she began volunteering with the Green Belt Movement. During this time, her mother successfully ran for Parliament and was subsequently appointed assistant minister for environment and natural resources in 2003. Correspondence started piling up and international groups began inquiring about the program as Maathai started her new work. Mathai stepped in, putting both her marketing training and her familiarity with health issues to work.

The extra help, it turns out, was just in time. On October 8, 2004, Wangari Maathai received a call from Oslo on the way to a meeting with her constituency. The new laureate celebrated the moment by planting a Nandi flame tree.

A Million Trees, A Million Dreams

Since Maathai's Nobel Prize, the Green Belt Movement has become one of the most admired environmental organizations in the world. One of the many new projects it has undertaken is a partnership with the Shaklee Corporation, a natural products company in California.

Shaklee's chairman and CEO, Roger Barnett, was first attracted to the Green Belt Movement by the economic incentives it uses to advance sustainable development goals. The Shaklee Corporation, Barnett says, uses similar mechanisms to encourage its direct distributors to educate their clients about sustainable living and environmental impacts. Shaklee has long been interested in sustainability, and was the first company to receive Climate Neutral Certification through the Climate Neutral Network.

Now, inspired by Maathai's work, the company will plant one million trees with a program launched on Earth Day 2006 called "A Million Trees. A Million Dreams." So far, the company has planted close to 150,000 trees through local programs in the United States and Canada, and it has donated $100,000 to plant one million trees in Kenya.

Barnett has since visited Maathai's home region in Kenya, and says that the true impact of Maathai's work hit home once he was there. "She has vision, she has persistence, and she has charm," he says. And her sunny refusal to imagine limits on people's ability to restore the environment has led him to expand Shaklee's tree planting program. "Dr. Maathai has been pushing us to do a billion," Barnett says. "She said that a million is not enough."