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Wangari Maathai: Saving the Earth, Tree by Tree

The founder of Kenya's Green Belt movement speaks of the wisdom of her forefathers

Wangari Maathai's broad face cracks easily and often into a wide, gorgeous smile. But there are flashes of the stony resolve that made her one of the most formidable opponents ever faced by Kenya's entrenched oligarchs. The founder of that country's two-decade-old Green Belt movement—which started as a grassroots movement of "tree-huggers" and grew into an army of 100,000 women willing to risk life and limb for the forest—took her place on the Future Visions stage on the fourth day of the State of the World Forum as an exemplar of a holistic approach to saving the earth acre by acre, village by village, person by person.

Her career as a world-renowned activist began with a miniscule tick. Maathai, a Ph.D. in biology, decided to track the life cycle of a tiny, bovine-transmitted parasite. Going into the field to study the cattle, she realized that the problem wasn't the mites themselves, but a degraded environment, which had lowered other animals' resistance. She was appalled to see the clear-cutting of indigenous forest, which was causing the rapid loss of exotic species. Without the trees' soil-anchoring undergrowth, the clear rivers of her childhood were running blood-red with silt. "So," she says, "I went from purest academia to working directly with our people."

Her program grew from just a few courageous individuals to the establishment of some 6,000 women's groups which planted 20 million donated tree seedlings in local communities. Using trees as the central organizing principle for thoroughgoing social transformation, they taught villagers about the direct economic benefits of environmental care: fuel, building and fencing materials, shade and beauty. They encouraged land management techniques like soil conservation, composting and use of indigenous crops.

Maathai, a Catholic in a largely Catholic nation, developed an acute appreciation for what she calls the "oral faith traditions" of the rural people, the old beliefs usually left out of the formal religious equation. She points to certain plants that cling to the side of rivers which, according to indigenous wise-folk, were never to be cut (plants which, it turns out, biologically purify water and anchor the soil of the riverbanks). She marvels at the ancestral wisdom which led to certain trees being designated as holy—"wild fig trees particularly, which are known to produce roots that over time go right through bedrock to the water table and bring moisture up to the surface. This enables bushes and smaller trees access to moisture, and they in turn shelter the fauna and create a thriving ecosystem." She tells the villagers their ancestors "were not 'heathens,' that modern science shows whatever inspired them was serious. I try to convince them they should see the forests as their forefathers did, and manage them on all our behalf."

Radiant in a floral gold, black, and red robe, her robust health and humor belie her recent hardships. Her traditional headdress conceals a scar from a concussion received when she and a group of followers protested the expropriation by corrupt officials of a 2,000-acre reserve of green space to develop a golf course. The government hired drug-addled young thugs equipped with clubs and machetes to ambush her and her unarmed supporters. By sheer luck, the melee was caught on camera, showing uniformed policemen consorting with her assailants. The uproar added fuel to the most recent, and perhaps most canny, strategy she and fellow environmentalists had followed.

The government, hoping to buy them off with a token gesture, passed what it had hoped would be a toothless "Environmental Management and Conservation Act" authorizing any citizen to bring suit against any private party or public official for environmental misuse. They had banked on ordinary citizens being unable to access the necessary legal resources, let alone the political savvy, to utilize its statutes. But Green Belt has begun a major educational effort at the "sub-location" (800-1,000 households) level, training local villagers how to mount lawsuits. "Oh, yes, the government may come to regret it a little," she says with a laugh.

Maathai is also a living demonstration of the power of the heart, much discussed during the Future Visions proceedings by sociologists and theologians. Asked how she keeps from hating her enemies, who have endangered her life and despoiled her land, she responds: "The leaders don't know what they are doing. They are so blinded by greed, they genuinely believe they should control all the resources. They don't understand why we are willing to be abused, willing to put ourselves in danger."

She attributes her success to persistence. "When they see us coming back day after day, year after year, when they see a critical mass of people is behind us, it forces them to think. If they think long and hard, perhaps someday they will come over to our side."

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