The Vagenda

Fem-vironmentalism: Wangari Maathai, a Grass Roots Feminist



‘You have to struggle to make things better. It doesn’t come on a silver plate.’- Wangari Maathai, speaking on Woman’s Hour shortly before her death in 2011.

If you knew that the changing, eroded landscapes were the root cause of the problems in your rural community, would you speak out or be too afraid of being mocked and labeled a ‘nagging bitch?’ Wangari Maathai is a truly inspirational woman. She overcame the poverty that made her community poor by fearlessly tackling the environmental depletion responsible for this poverty.

 Born in 1940, activist Wangari Maathai was raised in rural Kenya. Unusually for a woman in the country at that time, she was not only able but also encouraged to receive education. Her parents and brothers persuaded the family’s only daughter towards schooling against the social expectation that she fetch water and carry firewood. But this education still lit a fire: she became the first woman in East Africa to gain a PhD and later Nairobi’s first female senior lecturer in veterinary anatomy, the subject area of her doctorate.

A farmer showing how mixed cropping for diversity and soil protection

In her lecturing days, Wangari Maathai noticed the rivers of rural Kenya becoming browned by silt, a product of topsoil erosion, deforestation and human disruption of the natural ecosystem. As an adult, she found herself boiling the locally sourced water before consuming it; these same waters had been clean enough to drink fresh from the streams in her childhood. Something had deteriorated. Wangari Maathai not only saw the deforestation and privatisation of the Kenyan forests as responsible for the environmental degradation, but also as the root cause in a network system of rural women’s problems. The topsoil erosion and deforestation was a threat to the livestock industry. It meant a lack of firewood, and subsequently a deficit in women’s wages. This also depleted meat production and the means of cooking food and left women unable to provide nutrients for their growing children, many of whom subsequently suffered malnutrition and related diseases. The idyllic Kenyan scenery of Maathai’s childhood was only a memory, a result of commercially motivated soil cultivation, which had transformed it into little more than a wasteland, its land and rivers had dried up significantly.

Maathai perceived that the erosion of resources was also the erosion of women’s rights; the right to feed their children and gain sufficient wages through farming. This observation was strongly in Maathai’s psyche when she attended the United Nation’s Women’s Conference in Mexico in the early 1970s. There, she met fellow rural women who also observed their sisters suffering as a result of deforestation, environmental depletion and topsoil erosion. Wangari Maathai decided to act. To do so, she reached out not to the corrupt government who privatized the Kenyan forests but to those who were most affected by the deforestation at ‘grass roots’ level: the rural women.

Wangari Maathai’s sisters in Kenya were convinced they could not plant a tree as they held no educational diploma, an idea most likely manufactured so that women believed themselves powerless. Maathai told them that this was nonsense and, by teaching the women how to plant trees, began a green revolution in Kenya. She sought to improve conditions for women through replanting: by regenerating the soil and ecosystem, women could continue to serve their communities as both farmers and mothers alike. The coffee and tea grown in Kenya for commercial purposes had disrupted the ecosystem and led to a dangerous deficit in indigenous trees that should naturally flourish in the area. Maathai’s tree planting project sought to reintroduce indigenous trees to the Kenyan countryside. This was the beginning of the Green Belt Movement, an organization she founded in 1977 and still in operation today. If the women tended to a tree they planted and could prove that it grew to adult size, they were reimbursed the modest cost of the seedling. In 1998, Wangari Maathai directly and personally protested the privatization of Kenya’s Karura Forest, countering it with a tree planting protest and stating that she was prepared to shed blood for it, like her ancestors had. Thanks to her efforts, the sites of deforestation that were once dry and barren are now lush and flourishing. Her regeneration of the ecosystem has cleansed the streams from which 5,000 people can now drink safely. Maathai’s efforts to repopulate forests with trees have improved rural women’s wages; $1,300 has been made from the direct sale of timber alone.

for press release 2015

Her political activism did not stop there. In 1992, she led several women in a hunger strike at Uhuru Park to successfully secure the release of political prisoners. Their protest, which culminated in eleven months’ worth of action, was initially belittled and derided by the authorities, a view that changed when the protesters refused to surrender even when violently attacked by police. Wangaari was herself derided and vilified for demanding democratic elections in the face of a corrupt government, but, as her daughter observed, ‘She never did anything to be liked, but because she felt it was the right thing to do.’

In 2004, she became the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize for peace, democracy and her outstanding efforts to combat women’s poverty through environmentalism. At the time, this made her one of only twelve women to have received the award, a figure that has since risen to sixteen. In the same year, she participated in the Nobel Women’s Initiative and attended a conference in Kenya discussing landmines and human rights in conflict zones. Interviewed on BBC Woman’s Hour shortly before her death, she expressed her belief that by working together, women have ample ability to empower one another.

It only takes a spark to start a fire, and Maathai’s Green Belt Movement has planted 51 million trees in Kenya from one woman’s belief. This has enabled the upholding of rural livelihood and secured the survival of communities in which women play a vital role. This summer, the Green Belt Movement commemorates its feminist root with the Wangari Maathai Memorial Lecture. Her legacy is proof that change, if not money, grows on trees.

Event information: St. James Piccadilly Church on Tuesday, June 16th, 7pm-10pm.

RSVP information:

- Rosie MacLeod

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