The Tree Ambassador
The Satya Interview with Wangari
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
What do you see as the greatest challenge to
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
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
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
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 http://greenbeltmovement.org.