Reforestation and what trees have to do with solutions?
Thirty years ago, in the country of Kenya, 90% of the forest had been chopped down. Without trees to hold the topsoil in place, the land became like a desert.
When the women and girls would go in search of firewood in order to prepare the meals, they would have to spend hours and hours looking for what few branches remained.
A woman named Wangari watched all of this happening. She decided that there must be a way to take better care of the land and take better care of the women and girls.
So she planted a tree. And then she planted another. She wanted to plant thousands of trees, but she realised that it would take a very long time if she was the only one doing it. So she taught the women who were looking for firewood to plant trees, and they were paid a small amount for each sapling they grew. Reforestation was beginning.
Soon she organised women all over the country to plant trees, and a movement took hold. It was called the Green Belt Movement, and with each passing year, more and more trees covered the land.
But something else was happening as the women planted those trees. Something else besides those trees was taking root. The women began to have confidence in themselves. They began to see that they could make a difference. They began to see that they were capable of many things, and that they were equal to the men. They began to recognise that they were deserving of being treated with respect and dignity.
Changes like these were threatening to some. The president of the country didn’t like any of this. So police were sent to intimidate and beat Wangari for planting trees, and for planting ideas of equality and democracy in people’s heads, especially in women’s. She was accused of “subversion” and arrested many times.
Once, while Wangari was trying to plant trees, she was clubbed by guards hired by developers who wanted the lands cleared. She was hospitalised with head injuries. But she survived, and it only made her realise that she was on the right path.
For almost thirty years, she was threatened physically, and she was often made fun of in the press. But she didn’t flinch. She only had to look in the eyes of her three children, and in the eyes of the thousands of women and girls who were blossoming right along with the trees, and she found the strength to continue.
And that is how it came to be that 30 million trees have been planted in Africa, one tree at a time. The landscapes–both the external one of the land and the internal one of the people–have been transformed.
In 2002, the people of Kenya held a democratic election, and the president who opposed Wangari and her Green Belt Movement is no longer in office. And Wangari is now Kenya’s Assistant Minister for the Environment.
She is 65 years old, and this year she planted one more tree in celebration and thanksgiving for being given a very great honour:
Wangari Maathai has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She is the first African woman to receive this award.
After she was notified, she gave a speech entitled, “What Do Trees Have To Do With Peace?” She pointed out how most wars are fought over limited natural resources, such as oil, land, coal or diamonds. She called for an end to corporate greed, and for leaders to build more just societies. Reforestation of the planet is needed. She added:
“Our recent experience in Kenya gives hope to all who have been struggling for a better future. It shows it is possible to bring about positive change, and still do it peacefully. All it takes is courage and perseverance, and a belief that positive change is possible. That is why the slogan for our campaign was ‘It is Possible!'”
“On behalf of all African women, I want to express my profound appreciation for this honour, which will serve to encourage women in Kenya, in Africa, and around the world to raise their voices and not to be deterred.”
“When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope. We also secure the future for our children. I call on those around the world to celebrate by planting a tree wherever you are.”
As she received the Nobel Peace Prize this week in Oslo, she invited us all to get involved:
“Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own.”
January 25, 2005
Books written by Wangari Maathai