March 23, 2016–Wangari Maathai, Conservationist
One woman cannot re-plant an entire forest. But she can start a movement that teaches other women the skills to plant trees. Soon the forest that was destroyed is growing again.
New forests in Africa have come about largely because of Wangari Maathai. In 1977 she founded the Green Belt Movement, an ecological foundation which has replanted over 30 million trees to reforest the land.
“When we plant trees, we plant seeds of peace and hope,” said Maathai, who won a Nobel Prize for her conservation efforts in 2004. Trees heal the land and make a difference in the lives of the people, especially African women who over the last few decades have had to wander farther and farther in search of firewood and other basic necessities they need to maintain their lives. Streams that once were clear, now run muddy due to compromised watershed and deforestation. The Green Belt Movement is working to reverse the damage.
Maathai’s trees have become a powerful symbol of hope and power for the people who planted them. In her Nobel Lecture, Maathai describe the trees evolution as into a symbol of democracy: In time, the tree also became a symbol for peace and conflict resolution, especially during ethnic conflicts in Kenya when the Green Belt Movement used peace trees to reconcile disputing communities. During the ongoing re-writing of the Kenyan constitution, similar trees of peace were planted in many parts of the country to promote a culture of peace. Using trees as a symbol of peace is in keeping with a widespread African tradition. For example, the elders of the Kikuyu carried a staff from the thigi tree that, when placed between two disputing sides, caused them to stop fighting and seek reconciliation. Many communities in Africa have these traditions.
Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya in 1940. She was the first woman in Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. She studied in Africa, America and Germany. She was internationally recognized for her tireless fight for democracy, human rights and conservation. For her, the planting of trees was never a project she oversaw from behind a desk of a nonprofit agency.
“Although I was a highly educated woman, it did not seem odd to me to work with my hands, often with my knees on the ground, alongside rural woman,” Maathai said. “Some politicians and others in the 1980s and 1990s ridiculed me for doing so. But I had no problem with it, and the rural women both accepted and appreciated that I was working with them to improve their lives and the environment. After all, I was a child of the same soil.
“Education, if it means anything, should not take people away from land, but instill in them even more respect for it, because educated people are in a position to understand what is being lost. The future of the planet concerns all of us, and we should do what we can to protect it. As I told the foresters, and the women, you don’t need a diploma to plant a tree.”
Maathai authored of many books, earned numerous awards around the globe for her efforts and remained committed to healing the planet and bettering the lives of women until her death in 2011 from ovarian cancer.
In her Nobel speech she reflected on why she was compelled to work so hard planting trees:
… I reflect on my childhood experience when I would visit a stream next to our home to fetch water for my mother. I would drink water straight from the stream. Playing among the arrowroot leaves I tried in vain to pick up the strands of frogs’ eggs, believing they were beads. But every time I put my little fingers under them they would break. Later, I saw thousands of tadpoles: black, energetic and wriggling through the clear water against the background of the brown earth. This is the world I inherited from my parents.
Today, over 50 years later, the stream has dried up, women walk long distances for water, which is not always clean, and children will never know what they have lost. The challenge is to restore the home of the tadpoles and give back to our children a world of beauty and wonder.