In the mid-1970s, Wangari Maathai, a biologist who grew up in rural Kenya, noticed that the rivers outside of Nairobi would rush down the hillsides and roads when it rained, leaving them muddy with silt and soil erosion.
As a researcher at the University of Kenya in Nairobi, Maathai also observed skinny cows with little grass upon which to graze, and people who looked undernourished relying on fields that lacked vegetation. Later, on a trip to visit her family in rural Nyeri, she saw that most of the trees, bushes, and grasses –among which she had played as a child – had been replaced by tea and coffee crops.
Cynthia Hirsch, DePaul 1980, served from 1992 until 2016 as an assistant attorney general with the Wisconsin Department of Justice. She works on rule of law initiatives and human rights issues in Liberia, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, and India, primarily with Lawyers Without Borders.
The rivers, she observed, were silted with topsoil coming from the commercial tree plantations. Perhaps saddest of all was the absence of the beloved fig trees of her childhood, and the fact that cutting down a particular favorite fig tree left the adjacent stream dry.
Maathai, mourning the loss of the wildlife that stream had nurtured and realizing the profound connection between the trees and water quality, was inspired to act. According to Maathai, generations of Kenyan women had passed on to their daughters the cultural tradition of leaving the fig trees in place. She organized a grass roots environmental movement in order to fulfill that cultural promise.
The Connection Between Poverty and Environment
In June 1975, 133 governments and 4,000 women from around the world gathered at the first United Nations World Conference on Women. One outcome of that conference was the need to focus on the plight of rural women. It was clear to Maathai and her colleagues that there was a connection between deforestation and soil loss and rural poverty. Lack of wood for fuel and fencing, land for livestock, clean drinking water, and locally grown unprocessed food – all have a direct impact on health and quality of life.
A simple and sustainable mantra began: Plant Trees!!
The Green Belt Movement
Maathai and her associates launched the Green Belt Movement in the mid-1970s. In addition, they were aware of the dire need for jobs in Kenya, so they also began a business, operated out of Maathai’s home, to employ poor Kenyans to work in local gardens. Eventually, they created nurseries, and encouraged Kenyans to take the tree seedlings and plant them throughout the country in cities and the countryside. The movement grew, and she eventually received recognition and support from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and other international conservation groups.
In December 2004, Wangari Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental work. She was the first African woman – and some would argue the first environmentalist – to receive the prize. What pleased her about this award, she wrote, were the connections that the Nobel committee made between peace, sustainable management of resources, and good governance.
The Green Belt Movement continues to thrive and now has offices in London and New York.
A Beautiful Example
As a pro bono lawyer with Lawyers Without Borders, I worked in Kenya last year and observed the results of her efforts. I find it a beautiful example of how a simple resource management concept, implemented with the will of a few thoughtful citizens, can improve the natural resources of an entire country.
If you would like to find out more, I recommend reading Unbowed: A Memoir by Wangari Maathai, and learning more about the Greenbelt Movement by visiting greenbeltmovement.org.