Wangari Maathai, p2

Apart from employment, the trees offer many benefits. Most importantly, they provide firewood, the only cooking fuel of almost all Africans. Sometimes, when wood is scarce, people go hungry, not because they have no food, but because they have no wood. Most of the thirty million trees that have been planted will not be used for firewood, however. Their purpose is simply to replenish Kenya’s forests, which have been reduced to only three percent of their original size. The trees planted by the Green Belt Movement have helped to reverse this trend. Agriculture has been improved because there is less erosion and more rainfall. The trees provide shade and protection from the wind. And, as Wangari emphasizes, they also make the countryside beautiful.

In the early years of her struggle, Wangari realized that one of the reasons for the depletion of the forests was that corrupt and greedy Kenyan politicians were stealing the land. Sometimes they were using it themselves to grow cash crops. Sometimes they were giving it to other members of Kenya’s elite as a political favour.

Because politicians are responsible for so much of the deforestation in Kenya, Wangari’s fight against it made her into an important political figure. She spoke out strongly against dishonest politicians. She worked hard against the government to stop a skyscraper being built in a Nairobi park. She supported a group of old women who went on a hunger strike to protest about their relatives being held as political prisoners. When she learned of a plot to cancel elections and establish a military government, she joined other dissidents in publicly denouncing the government of President Daniel Arap Moi. And, with old women from the Green Belt Movement at her side, she clashed with police who were trying to prevent her from planting trees on forest land that had been cleared for a government-supported luxury housing project. As a result of all this political activity, Wangari was beaten and jailed several times. Once she was almost clubbed to death.

In 2002, the Moi government was defeated and Mwai Kibaki became President of Kenya. Wangari was elected to parliament. Later, she became the Deputy Minister of Environment. But although she had become part of the government, she continued to fight against it. In October, 2004 she threatened to resign if the government didn’t abandon a plan to cut down a forest and use the land for farming. She said, “If they go into the forest, they will be digging their own graves and those of their children and grandchildren.“

In November, 2004 Wangari won the Nobel Peace Prize. She said she was going to use the $1.5 million US that comes with the prize to spread the Green Belt movement around the world.

-- information from: ‘Eco-Heroes’, Aubrey Wallace, Mercury House, San Francisco, 1993; Wangari Maathai’s speech to the UN World Women’s Conference, Beijing, 1995; Time (US), 98.12.14; The Sunday Nation (Kenya), 01.03.08, Muthui Mwai and Mugumo Munene; Washington Post, 04.10.09, Emily Wax; New York Times, 04.10.12, Wangari Maathai