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June/July 2004
The Tree Ambassador
The Satya Interview with Wangari Maathai


Wangari Maathai is a name well-established in the world of environmental advocacy. She started in Kenya in 1977 when she began planting tree seedlings one by one, a trend that caught on en masse to form what would become the internationally recognized Green Belt Movement (GBM), which has earned, and still earns, her many awards, including the Goldman Environmental Prize and entry into UNEP’s Global 500 Hall of Fame.

Despite facing intense clashes with the government throughout the years, including being jailed for her work and her outspoken voice for the environment, democracy, and the rights of women and the poor, the GBM has struggled and survived. In 1986 it was expanded to the Pan African Green Belt Network, and to date has seen more than 30 million trees planted—on farms, schools, forests and other public lands, bringing life to often desertified areas. The concept was first introduced during Wangari’s involvement with the National Council of Women of Kenya, who adopted and supported her efforts to develop a grassroots organization focused on mobilizing women to conserve the environment and improve their quality of life.

Fortunately, things have changed much since the days she was seen as the enemy of government. The notorious Daniel arap Moi is no longer in power, and democratic reforms have been displacing corrupt practices, albeit slow at times, and Wangari is now a government participant rather than its rival. In December 2002, she was elected to the Parliament of Kenya, and is currently serving as Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife, a position she was appointed to by the President. Recent efforts also include a book, The Green Belt Movement (Lantern, 2003), in which she shares her story.

Wangari Maathai was recently in New York to talk with potential supporters, and spent a morning with Rachel Cernansky discussing some of the history of the Movement she started 30 years ago and a few thoughts on the transition from a grassroots, and often ‘anti-government,’ position to instead being part of the government.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, what is the Green Belt Movement?
It is a grassroots environmental movement that specializes in mobilizing local communities into groups and giving them basic tools and skills to produce and plant tree seedlings—and in the process, protect the environment and meet some basic needs, such as for firewood and fencing materials. And on a larger scale, protecting the soils and providing [food] for the animals. It’s an initiative that starts at a personal level, meeting household needs and slowly moving out to the neighbors and eventually addressing issues that have a national and a global scale. In some areas we have been successful—like in Kenya—but in some we are still trying to find our roots.

“Finding your roots”… what does that entail?
Reaching out to other African people who would like to do as we are doing in Kenya—mobilize communities and work for the common good of the environment and basic rights. Sometimes it’s not always easy—we find it very difficult to mobilize resources, yet we are working among poor people, so it requires a lot of commitment on the part of those who are doing the work.

So it has moved much slower than it should, considering the great need.

What role does education play?
Civic and environmental education is a very important [part of] the GBM. We are essentially an environmental movement, but we also want people to understand their basic rights so they can take action. Information empowers you to demand what is yours. If you are not informed, you are very vulnerable—people take advantage. People who are not aware that their rights are being violated accept their suffering in silence. Sometimes they don’t know where they can go and complain. Sometimes they just fear, because the governments are very oppressive. Education is important so people can understand that government does not have to be oppressive, that there are basic rights guaranteed by constitutions. Sometimes when governments violate rights, they’re actually breaking the law, and people can use action to try to make them respect the law. So it is important to educate people so they can understand that there is a recourse they can turn to and they don’t have to be victims.

So amongst Green Belt participants, there’s an understanding that a concern for the environment and for human rights and well-being are one and the same?
You have a right to a clean and healthy environment—that somebody should not deny you. You have a right to clean drinking water, and if someone pollutes the river or destroys the forests from where the rivers come, they are indirectly interfering with your right to clean water and clean air. We make this kind of education so people can understand that environmental rights are very much human rights.

When we talk about human rights, we tend to overemphasize the right of the human species and often overlook the rights of other species. Every species has a right to be. [Discussion of rights] should include other species, and for human beings to be conscious of the fact that there are others besides us in this land. Man doesn’t have a right to destroy other species, he has a responsibility to allow [them] to play whatever role they [have] in the scheme of things. That does not mean we do not have an interdependency that allows us to, for example, eat some of the species so that we survive. That is a different consciousness for a human to come to, where they know or accept that other species are not necessarily created for the human species, but for a purpose that may be very different. Whoever created and whatever evolutionary role other species play, it’s not manmade. Man himself is also part of creation, and because human beings have the intelligence to understand that, they need to have a consciousness to allow other species to survive.

While we’re talking about other species… Is bushmeat a problem in Kenya?
Bushmeat is a problem in Kenya. Before the dawn of colonialism, many communities did not eat bushmeat in Kenya—especially the adult community. And that culture allows wildlife to flourish. It is also true that there was no commercial value in many of these animals; there was no cash economy, so the need was very much at household level. But as soon as commercial agriculture was introduced, and wildlife was commercialized, then many wildlife were killed. And in recent—maybe the last 10 to 15—years, a new phenomenon has been introduced into Kenya, where tourists want to eat these animals. They see them as exotic—zebra, antelope, crocodile. And because tourists have money, they have a tendency to make even repulsive things look attractive. You’ll go to very expensive hotels and find tourists being fed meat from wild animals. So people think that this is the ‘in’ thing. Also, because of increased poverty, and the promotion of meat-eating, other people now also kill animals because it is no longer taboo to eat wildlife.

And that association, of meat with wealth, is a new trend?
That’s a new thing. The local, the traditional people were not 100 percent vegetarian, but they only ate meat occasionally. They did not kill an animal without a reason, and to kill it they always had to beg permission from the animal. I find it profound wisdom from the traditions.

Deforestation often enables more killing of wildlife. Is that part of the education effort?
Yeah, we know that when the forests are encroached upon—and especially when indigenous forests are replaced with exotic species or plantations for food crops—this destroys habitats, and a lot of animals that were supported by the indigenous habitat are either killed or disappear.

A lot of the work you’ve done has directly or indirectly served to empower women. How difficult has it been to get people to overcome any cultural biases that serve to oppose moving in that direction?
The truth of the matter is, in the traditional system, women were very strong in the role that they played, and men were very strong in their own role. In the process of colonialism, both men and women became subdued, very disempowered, deliberately. So much so, that they let the environment be destroyed, not only by the colonial system, but also by the postcolonial system—they did not see they have the capacity to stop the destruction of their own forests. So when we talk about empowerment, it is almost like restoring the original self-confidence, the capacity of people to take care of what is their own, to not be observers but to become active participants in the restoration of the environment. And therefore, empowering women is not perceived as a security thing or as a new thing. It can only be seen that way by people who have virtually forgotten that this was not always the situation. And it is the women who, in this part of the country, work the land—they do the cultivation, they produce the food crop. So it was much easier to work with women in the production of tree seedlings and in the nursery. But now we see a lot of men also participating. And this is partly because men see the planting of trees as an economic investment for tomorrow. They will sell those trees; they will be able to build a house with them. So we find that initially we empowered women, but this has also gone to the men and children. It is a way of restoring a sense of responsibility to the environment by the general public.

In your years of work for the environment and people, what have been some of your proudest moments?
I would say one of the most visible achievements is the number of trees we have planted—over 30 million. They have changed the microclimate and the landscape.

They have also changed lives. The vast mobilization of women—over 100,000 women forming small groups—has been a great achievement.

In the beginning people were saying that women cannot plant trees, they do not know how, they are not educated, they don’t have a university diploma. We were able to give these women skills, and the trees look quite healthy, just like those planted by a forester. They become what I call “foresters without diplomas.”

Another achievement I would say is the awareness—just opening the eyes of thousands of people to see that it is possible, and important, to make the linkage between a good environment and a good quality of life; that when you destroy the environment, you also destroy your life. That heightened awareness has created a situation where the environment is a major agenda in the country that politicians cannot ignore. People at the grassroots create pressure for politicians. We have changed, and are still changing, quite a few laws that will be protective of the environment.

In the GBM we create jobs, [which] is also very important. We live in a country where there is a very high level of unemployment. You give yourself productivity when you create seedlings—the GBM gives a financial compensation to the person who planted and grew the seedlings that survive.
At the same time, we need people to go and see how these women are working, instruct them, correct them where they are wrong, ensure that the work is being done properly. These are jobs. Also we have a strong secretariat at the headquarters of about 40 people who are monitoring and compiling reports, and fundraising.

And many more jobs can be created if resources are available.
And of course, perhaps finally, everybody talks about alleviating poverty, especially in Africa. When you encourage women to produce trees and provide financial compensation for every seedling that survives, that means putting money in the hands of poor women in rural areas. There can be no better way of addressing poverty. And that is not dishing out money; they are not begging. To me it’s a very empowering activity, because people do things for themselves; they get a sense of accomplishment, and that is very important for anybody‘s psyche. Aid disempowers and makes people develop a dependency syndrome. We address poverty, and the dependency syndrome that has been created by many years of aid handed down to people.

How has word been able to spread so effectively and GBM to accumulate so many members?
Initially we spread the word through the mouth; and fortunately when something is successful it spreads very quickly. We trained a few people and encouraged them to organize groups; and if they were successful, to then teach other groups. We restricted the distribution of trees to about five kilometers—a walking distance. We used to say, if people beyond five km want to plant a tree, let them establish their own tree nursery. That way you end up having a lot of nurseries established by different people.

Then of course there is radio and television (mostly radio), which we were able to use when the government was less aggressive. But the word of mouth was our best method.

On the flip side, what have been some of the greatest obstacles?
One obstacle is of course the government—vilifying and blocking us. This was deliberate because they did not like the idea that I, and the movement, [were] pointing out violations of rights and people and the destruction of the environment that was being done by the government. And because the government was against the movement, a lot of people were afraid to be associated with the movement, and therefore we did not mobilize as many people as we could have.

If they had even supported morally, it would have been wonderful. But they did not; if anything, they tried to crush it. In some locations, it was even branded as an anti-development, anti-government movement. And when you are being beaten by your own government, a lot of other governments or donors will not give support. So quite often the movement never has enough money to do the work that it should do; but somehow we survived.

Some people have felt the central government was too powerful, and that the resources were completely managed at the expense of the local people. That was part of the reason we found ourselves in a lot of trouble in the past, because we were trying to rise up to demand environmental protection, but we were constantly being reminded that the Constitution did not give us any rights to speak as individuals about the environment.

How has your vision—if you do or did have one—evolved since you first started?
Initially I just wanted to plant trees and provide firewood and fencing materials to the women and protect from soil erosion. I was not planning to be doing this 30 years later; I didn’t have a vision that encompassed the way the movement evolved. But it turned out [that] the deeper I dug, the more I found needed to be done. And so I stayed with it for all these years, because of the demand that the movement itself created.

Are you less involved now that you are in a government position?
I’m less involved in the GBM per se, but fortunately a lot of people are committed, and still going on with the work. At the moment my biggest challenge is that because the government has not been willing to work with people and protect the environment and especially soils, a lot of damage has been done, and there is a lot of reconstruction that needs to be done in the Ministry. We don’t have the mass resources in the Ministry to work as fast as we need to. I’m trying to combine my being in the government with the GBM, to see also to what extent I can assist the GBM to get the resources they need to take advantage of the positive environment that has been created by this government. In the meantime I am hoping that the Ministry will be responsive to some of the approaches that we have perfected, so that we can really rehabilitate the forests. So I find myself as a bridge between the government and civil society. I understand the civil society very well, I understand their strengths, I understand their weaknesses. I am now beginning to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the government, and I can see that the two can assist each other very well. And I’m hoping that the GBM will find the resources because it has the capacity, it was the will, it is ready to do the work. The government has the will, but it still has to put its machinery in place, and that may take time. So the partnership can be excellent.

Do you see that happening?
I see that happening, that’s partly why I’m here, I’m trying to see donors willing to support the organization. And to take advantage of the great opportunity that this government has brought because after all, this is what we have been fighting for all these years, and finally we are there.

What has it been like for you to switch to a government position from more grassroots work?
I think that what is interesting, especially being a member of Parliament, is to participate in making the laws—so you are not just looking at laws and criticizing them—and sometimes improving laws that have been there, such as the laws on forestry, on mining, and on conservation of wildlife. These laws have been very bad in the past, and we are now involved in trying to make them better. That is very very exciting for me, because you’re there, you’re participating in the change.

I’m curious, with regards to your supporters, if you think they are more people who have been behind you all along, or if they were government supporters before who ended up changing their views...
I think that the consciousness we have raised in Kenya has made it possible for many people to understand that although the government was vilifying us and making us look bad, that indeed we were involved in very noble work, that was very good for the country in general. And so I find today that there are many people who were on the side of the government at that time and who probably kept silent because they did not want to jeopardize their favorable positions or whatever benefits they were getting from the government but that they actually knew and understood the good work we were trying to push, and therefore today are very supportive. I would say that we are more widely supported now than we were then. It is for that reason that I feel we have this absolutely golden opportunity to make a difference.

Have you noticed significant changes since Daniel arap Moi left power?
There have been a lot of changes. We deal with a lot of, and are trying very hard to fight, corruption. There is a general feeling in the country of greater freedom, which is wonderful, a feeling that nobody’s going to [trample on your rights]; there is a general feeling that we have a government that is pro-people, it was voted in by people. There is also the feeling that the government is going to use the resources from the people—the taxes—for the benefit of the people; and we have already seen improved healthcare, we see improved education, in fact primary education is now free and to a certain extent students in high school are also supported.

I understand you’re rewriting the Constitution. What are some of the most notable changes?
Yes, we have virtually finished writing the Constitution. We have produced a draft, [which] is now being discussed.

I think one of the major changes is the protection of the Bill of Rights, that was a very good incorporation into the Constitution. Also the reduction of presidential powers—in other words, distribution of powers that were previously overwhelmingly invested in the presidency. And then, there has been a major effort to devolve power, to take power to local governments instead of around the central government.

And within the environment, one of the major changes is the power that has been given back to the people to protect their own environment. This was also one of the reasons why we’ve not yet agreed on the Constitution.

What do you see as the greatest challenge to the environment?
I’ve always found that the biggest problem is the balancing act between what we know we need, as the minimum that we should have for our environment, and balancing that with our demand for development, for example. The government knows we need clean drinking water, that they should not cut trees if they need water—but they need trees, they need the timber, they need paper. So balancing that becomes a problem. We all know that we need to conserve our wildlife, but we also want to expand our agricultural farms, we want to make them bigger, more productive. Therefore we want to [use] commercial agrochemicals—yet we know that those are going to destroy the soil. We know we need to protect the air, we need to release less harmful gases into the atmosphere, but we also want to move around, we want to fly, we want to drive our cars.

Balancing. That to me is always the problem, whether it is at the personal or at the government level, or at the global level. We need a lot of information, especially for decision-makers, so that they can make the right decisions. Secondly, we need the citizens to be more active, not to be apathetic, and to put pressure on their government, because quite often, governments have short-term agendas; and they may make a decision in favor of their own personal agenda rather than that of the environment.

You were talking earlier about the awareness that quality of life is interchangeable with environmental quality. I can’t help but ask, what goes through your mind when you come here, to a place like New York? Where we’re surrounded by consumptive habits, with quite a lack, or at the least an ignorance, of such an awareness.

Well that’s a big problem, and has always been, from the very beginning of environmental consciousness. Even people like Rachel Carson [author of Silent Spring], when they were writing, they were drawing our attention to the fact that at the rate we are developing, we are killing our lakes and our fishes; and that has continued. Again [you get] to the balancing. It is a matter of balancing what people in this part of the world believe essential in their lives, and what they can afford to give up for the benefit of the environment. This concept of balancing in the West has been discussed as far back as I can remember, but I really don’t see much change at a global scale. At a personal scale, I know there are thousands of people in developed countries who decide that they are not going to pursue that consumptive lifestyle, but we are still not a critical mass. We need to be a critical mass so that we can shift the political position. But until then, it’s not easy, because the system that has been created in the West is based on exploiting the natural resources, accumulating them for a few individuals who become excessively rich, and can dish out pieces to the others as they please. They have this strong belief that they must own a large part of those natural resources, and that doesn’t amount to very much for the others who are sacrificed by their own lifestyle.

Now, what goes on in those people’s minds is not something you can change overnight, because—if it was easy to change it would have been changed by now. But we are still fighting it; we just have to continue.

Are you hopeful for the future?
I’m always hopeful. If you lose hope you lose a very important ingredient of being a human. You have to continue believing that things can change, and pass that to the next generation. Because as long as there is that hope, it is good; when you lose hope, that’s when things will be very very bad. The fact that you don’t achieve in your own lifetime doesn’t matter; others will achieve. But we have suffered the costs.

Are there things in particular that give you hope?
Well when I plant a tree and I see it grow—and if it is a fruit, I see children eat—I feel that’s great. Or a tree grows, it gives home to birds, to animals, that’s good. I’m an action-oriented person, I don’t like to talk only, I want to act, because I want to translate my conviction to something that will make a change, and planting a tree is for me a sign of hope and a sign that as long as we are taking action, we can make a difference.

Do you ever go back to the first tree you planted?
Yes [laughs], yes, the very first tree is still there. It is a big tree now, in the middle of a market. Occasionally I go and look at it, and it’s doing fine.

To learn more about the Green Belt Movement or about the “Green Belt Safaris” they offer visitors to see Kenya through the eyes of the GBM, visit


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