Wangari Muta Maathai

A visionary environmentalist, Wangari Maathai (born 1940) created a successful reforestation program that began in Kenya and was adopted in other African nations and the United States. Maathai was recognized world-wide for her achievements, although she was denounced as a traitor and a rebel in her home country.

Wangari Maathai is perhaps best known for creating the Green Belt Movement of Kenya, a program recognized all over the world for combining community development and reforestation to combat environmental and poverty issues. Maathai excelled at mobilizing people for a very simple goal-reforestation-which also impacted poverty and community development in Kenya. Maathai believed that people needed to help with environmental issues and should not rely upon the government. Maathai clashed with the Kenyan government, often at risk to her own life, when she opposed destructive governmental initiatives and when she forayed into politics personally.

Turmoil Early On

Maathai was born in Kenya in 1940. Attending college in the United States, she went on to earn a B.S. from Mount St. Scholastica University, in Kansas and a M.S. from University of Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania. She then earned a Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi. She was the first woman in Kenya to earn a Ph.D. and at age 38, she held the first female professorship (in Animal Science) at the University of Nairobi. She credited her education with giving her the ability to see the difference between right and wrong, and with giving her the impetus to be strong.

Maathai's life was not without turmoil and hurdles, which she described as God-given. She married a politician who unknowingly provided the basis for her future environmental activities when he ran for office in 1974 and promised to plant trees in a poor area of the district he represented. Maathai's husband abandoned her and their three children later, filing and receiving a divorce on the grounds that she was "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control." Maathai maintained that it was particularly important for African women to know that they could be strong, and to liberate themselves from fear and silence.

Visionary Reforestation Program

In 1977 Maathai left her professor position at the University of Nairobi and founded the Green Belt Movement on World Environment Day by planting 9 trees in her backyard. The Movement grew into a program run by women with the goal of reforesting Africa and preventing the poverty that deforestation caused. Deforestation was a significant environmental issue in Africa and was resulting in the encroachment of desert where forests had stood. According to the United Nations in 1989, only 9 trees were replanted in Africa for every 100 trees that were cut down. Not only did deforestation cause environmental problems such as soil runoff and subsequent water pollution, but lack of trees near villages meant that villagers had to walk great distances for firewood. Village livestock also suffered from not having vegetation to graze on.

Women in the Kenyan villages were the people who first implemented Maathai's Green Belt Movement. "Women, " Maathai explained, "are responsible for their children, they cannot sit back, waste time and see them starve." The program was carried out with the women establishing nurseries in their villages, and persuading farmers to plant the seedlings. The movement paid the women for each tree planted that lived past three months. Under Maathai's direction in its first 15 years, the program employed more than 50, 000 women and planted more than 10 million trees. Other African nations adopted similar programs based on the Green Belt Movement model. Additionally, the government stepped up its tree planting efforts by twenty times.

More Than Planting Trees

The Greenbelt Movement that Maathai conceived was not limited solely to tree planting. The program worked in concert with the National Council of Women of Kenya to provide such services to Kenyan women and villages including: family planning, nutrition using traditional foods, and leadership skills to improve the status of the women. By 1997 the Movement had resulted in the planting of 15 million trees, had spread to 30 African countries as well as the United States, and had provided income for 80, 000 people.

Maathai had strong beliefs about how she carried out environmental activism. She warned that educated women should avoid becoming an elite, and instead, should do work for the planet. Nobody could afford to divorce themselves from the earth, she believed, because all human had to eat and depend on the soil. Activism, she felt, was most effective when done in groups rather than alone. She credited her success with the Green Belt Movement to keeping the goal simple. The program provided a ready answer for those who asked, "What can I do?" Planting trees, in this case, was the simple solution.

Clashes with Government

Maathai continued to oppose modernization that collided with her environmental beliefs; this often put her at odds with government. She admitted that "You cannot fight for the environment without eventually getting into conflict with politicians." As an example, she was thrown out of her state office in 1989 when she opposed the construction of a 62 story skyscraper in Uhuru Park in Nairobi. Maathai claimed that the building, which was to house government offices and a 24 hour TV station, would cost 200 million dollars. The money, she claimed, could be better spent addressing serious poverty, hunger and education needs in the country. Her opposition succeeded in frightening off foreign investors and they withdrew their support; the skyscraper was never built. In Nairobi, Maathai also opposed the deforestation of 50 acres of land outside the city limits to be used for growing roses for export.

Politics and environmental activism continued to interweave in Maathai's life even before she attempted to run for office. She helped found the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy, a group that was opposed to the leadership of then-president Daniel arap Moi. She advocated for the release of political prisoners and led a hunger strike on 1992 with the mothers of these prisoners. During one of these protests, she was beaten by police until unconscious.

In January 1992 she was arrested for her political protest activities when more than 100 police raided her Nairobi residence. Later in 1992, she was charged with spreading rumors that then-president Moi planned to turn government power over to the military in order to prevent multi-party elections. While Maathai awaited trial for the latter charge, she was refused medical treatment in jail; even though she was experiencing difficulties due to a history of heart problems and arthritis.

Political Campaigns

In 1992 Maathai was approached to run for the Presidency by a cross section of the Kenyan population. She declined, preferring to try and unite the fractured opposition parties against President Moi. Her efforts failed and Moi was again elected.

In 1997 Maathai responded to pressure from supporters and friends and announced that she was running not only for a Parliament seat, but for the Presidency under the Liberal Party of Kenya (LPK) in an attempt to defeat President Moi. She got a late start in the process and did not announce her intentions until a month before the election. Maathai explained that she was "finding it increasingly difficult to turn away those who approach me stating that the time has come for me to practice what I preach in the Green Belt Movement … honesty, vision, courage, commitment and genuine concern for all people." She denounced the current corruption in the government, and urged that the time had come to restore Kenyan people's dignity, self respect, and human rights. The government that she proposed was a people centered operation, or an "enabling political environment to facilitate development." Central to her vision was a Kenyan society where people acknowledged their cultural and spiritual background as they participated in government.

However, Maathai released no party manifesto prior to the election, claiming that the Green Belt Movement would provide the direction for her platform. At least one political analyst of the Africa News Service, saw this as troubling, claiming that Maathai might focus only on environmental issues and that the LPK already had a manifesto. Maathai countered such fears by claiming that her leadership would focus not only on the environment (which was, in her mind, tied to other issues like hunger), but on infrastructure issues, poverty, disease, and the empowerment of the oppressed.

Maathai found fault with the current political system which required candidates to acquire extremely large amounts of money in order to carry out campaigns. This situation, she claimed, made it difficult for many visionary hopefuls like herself to even have a chance at making a difference in Kenya. A few days prior to the December 1997 election, the LPK leaders withdrew Maathai's candidacy without notifying her. Her bid for a Parliament seat was also defeated in the election; she came in third. Moi again emerged as the presidential victor. She continued to be admired world-wide, however, for her visionary work in the environmental arena.

Further Reading on Wangari Muta Maathai

Africa News Service, October 27, 1997; January 5, 1998.

E Magazine, January 11, 1997.

Inter Press Service English News Wire, December 10, 1997.

Time, April 23, 1990; April 29, 1991; April 27, 1992.

Women in Action, January 1, 1992.

"Africa Prize Laureates, Professor Wangari Muta Maathai, " The Hunger Project, (April 13, 1998).

"Awareness Raising; Wangari Maathai Comes From Kenya, " BBC World Service, (April 13, 1998).

"Wangari Maathai Biography, " April 13, 1998).

"Women's One World, Women Who Dare: Celebrating Women's Her-story, " World Citizen News, (February/March 1997) (April 13, 1998).