A Tribute to Kenyan Environmentalist Wangari Maathai

In celebration of Earth Day on April 22, I will write two blogs about inspirational environmentalists. Also, my forthcoming book, Human Rights: Towards a Global Values System, has a section highlighting what I regard as one of the most inspirational environmentalists, Wangari Maathai (1940-2011). Unfortunately, she died suddenly in 2011. This blog is dedicated to her memory.

01 wangari-maathai

Wangari Maathai

Maathai was born into the Ihithe tribe of Kenya. Each person belongs to one of the country’s 42 communities that include the Luo, Kikuyu, Kamba, Luhya, Maasai, Meru, Embu, Somali and Turkana. Maathai was of Kikuyu ethnicity. Because of her keen intellect, she was able to pursue higher education in the U.S., a rarity for girls in rural areas. When she returned to Kenya, she worked in veterinary medicine research at the University of Nairobi, and eventually, despite resistance from male students and faculty, earned a Ph.D. In 2003, she ran for a seat in Kenya’s Parliament, and she won with 98 percent of the vote and served until 2007; this was the country’s first free and fair election in decades.



Kenya is located on the eastern coast of Africa and is slightly smaller than the state of Texas or the country of France. The capital and largest city is Nairobi. The equator runs across the country and divides it into two nearly equal parts. Forests cover less than 2 percent of Kenya. The population has grown rapidly in recent decades.

The British colonized and ruled Kenya and the surrounding area known as East Africa. After a rallying cry in Africa for liberation from European colonial rule, Kenya finally gained independence in 1963. The period of colonization was very difficult for the Kenyan people. Their cultural values and indigenous ways of living were considered inferior to those of the British and the West. Their traditional values were eroded, trivialized and deliberately belittled with colonization, while modern values were praised. Maathai states, “Even after colonization, it is unfortunate that [indigenous] cultural values still continue to be suppressed today in the name of modernization, civilization and Christianity. As a result, many people are less appreciative of the environment because they now perceive it as a commodity to be privatized and exploited.”

02 Green Belt MovementWangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement (GBM) in Kenya in 1977. The movement is a grassroots non-governmental organization (NGO) that focuses on environment conservation and development through a nationwide grassroots tree-planting campaign. Kenyans manage the campaign using local capacity, knowledge, wisdom and expertise. Most members, primarily women, live in rural areas. She proposed a project in which the organization would plant trees to inexpensively meet the need for wood fuel, building and fencing materials and soil conservation. In 1977, the group adopted her project.

At first the Kenyan forestry department was very supportive of the women’s work. But over time, the women established direct relationships with farmers, and their project became more effective than the forestry department, leading to hostility from the department and even the President of Kenya. Some farmers were intimidated and discouraged from planting trees. But the women joined together to establish their own tree nurseries where members could obtain seedlings. They launched a fund-raising campaign to raise money for the tree project. One of the few local companies that donated to the campaign was Mobil Oil of Kenya.

Planting trees

Planting trees with the community

The women organized seminars where government foresters taught the basics of tree nursery management to the women but used many technical terms. Since most of the women were illiterate, a less formal approach was needed. Then came the agricultural revolution! The modern way of farming used scientific knowledge, chemical fertilizers, large machinery, and lots of irrigation, while encouraging growing cash crops (crops sold to the world market) and management by men. Traditional farming was much different: women farmed, indigenous crops were grown, and diverse techniques suited to the environment were used. The women decided to do away with the professional foresters and instead relied on their traditions and common sense. After all, they had successfully cultivated crops on their farms for a long time. They decided to apply this strategy to tree planting. As a result, many women become foresters without a formal diploma.

Wangari Maathai holding Human Rights award

Wangari Maathai holding Human Rights award

Maathai addressed several problems that resulted from decades of colonial rule and the imposition of modern farming methods. Known as the African crisis, it was the distressed state of affairs in many areas of African society that resulted in poverty, unemployment, disease, environmental degradation, political corruption, population pressures, malnutrition/starvation, and the subjugation of women. Maathai was aware of the complex and entrenched root causes of the African crisis and worked to correct the problems as much as she could with the tree planting program. The program encouraged subsistence farming and soil conservation, promoted the status of women, and reduced malnutrition and disease.

One of the problems in Kenya, and Africa in general, was that since the 1970s many farmers had gradually turned to cash-crop farming at the expense of subsistence farming (growing crops for the household’s consumption) because they thought that the money earned from cash-crops would generate an income to support their families. But because of mismanagement, high costs for seeds and fertilizers, and fluctuating prices for their crops, many farmers were left without enough money to purchase food. This resulted in unbalanced diets and malnutrition. Instead, GBM encouraged farmers to practice both cash and subsistence farming so as to ensure enough food for the household. They also encouraged farmers to plant indigenous food crops—roots, cereals, legumes, yams, cassava, and vegetables—since these foods were high in nutritional value and contributed to local biological diversity.

Malnutrition and disease, Maathai found, was an epidemic in Kenya. For example, farmers with moderate incomes replaced healthy, traditional unprocessed foods such as sweet potatoes, yams, cassava, and indigenous green vegetables with diets similar to urbanites. These foods had a high cost and were generally unhealthy, since they were high in carbohydrates but poor in proteins and vitamins. This left many families malnourished.

Maathai found that over the years food production in Kenya and Africa in general had gradually decreased in yield, which contributed to regular famines. Maathai noted that many farmers ignored organic and other sustainable methods of farming because they were convinced that chemical fertilizers were more beneficial. She believed these notions were misplaced and that many farmers were unaware that chemical fertilizers actually harmed soil fertility over the long term. GBM promoted organic farming techniques that inexpensively increased soil fertility, reduced fertilizer and pesticide costs and increased yields. They promoted the use of animal manure as fertilizer, mulching, composting, crop rotation and planting trees.

Maathai_and_Obama_in_Nairobi 2006

Maathai with President Obama in Nairobi in 2006

Since agriculture was an important export in Kenya, Maathai claimed that the land’s fertile topsoil was one of Kenya’s most valuable national resources, and farmers should treat it as such. However, she found that farmers attached little economic value to the soil. During the rainy season, engorged rivers swept away thousands of tons of topsoil from Kenya’s countryside. Wind erosion denuded the land of vegetative cover, causing the loss of more soil. Soil erosion was caused by random deforestation, clearing vegetative cover, and planting along riverbeds, slopes and marginal lands. GBM trained community members to use inexpensive techniques to combat soil loss, such as planting indigenous species of trees, maintaining vegetative cover on the land, creating windbreaks, digging trenches, constructing terraces and protecting forests.

The women of Kenya tell stories of a difficult past, but today, they proudly tell how they can obtain sufficient supplies of wood fuel, since it is now available on their farms. They also note a decline in soil erosion, the return of wildlife (especially birds and small mammals), and the benefits of cleaner air and shade. The men are grateful and full of praise for the women because of the wonderful work they have done for the community.

Maathai became internationally known in 2004 when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts in the GBM. Despite Maathai’s untimely death in 2011, the GBM continues.


  1. Why do you think Wangari Maathai was so successful in establishing the GBM in Kenya?
  2. What obstacles did she overcome?
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