Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement

By Allison Domicone

Essay Domicone
Before taking a class on nonviolence through the politics department, Allison Domicone ’08 knew little about the Green Belt Movement and its founder, Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai. But when it came time to research and discuss any topic of interest relating to the course, Domicone found herself drawn to this Kenyan woman and to the idea of nonviolence movements in Africa in general.

“There’s not a whole lot of it and I think it’s really fascinating that it’s coming out of these countries that have dealt with so much colonial oppression and conflicts,” Domicone said.

Maathai’s Green Belt Movement (GBM) started with the simple idea of planting trees around Kenya to promote a healthier environment and to empower marginalized women and men by giving them a modest income to grow and cultivate the tree seedlings. The movement grew from there, also focusing on women’s rights, fighting poverty, and advancing democracy, all the while adhering to nonviolence tactics.

Now we are leaders, we lead our people
Now we are people, people of action
Now we are planters, we tell the people
Now we are green, our touch is green.

Let us unite, speak the same
Let us unite, tell we are living
Let us unite, enjoy our wealth
Now we are green, our touch is green.

— Litha Sovell of Green Belt Movement
    Tanzania, November 1998

LIKE A TREE, a movement starts out so small one can barely perceive it. It enters into this world vulnerable and susceptible to the slightest change of weather and to any predator that may cross its path. It faces much adversity in order to survive, for nature can be as harsh as it is bounteous. One might find it hard to comprehend how something so tiny could ever grow into an emblem of power, hope, and life. But against all odds, it does. It plants its roots firmly and deeply into the soil, and, reaching upward, constantly strives for the light. It has a duty to fulfill, a fate it cannot escape, for the stronger it grows, the more it must rely on the environment around it, and the more that environment in return depends on it for survival. It becomes necessary, a fundamental aspect of an intricate and ever-changing cycle of life. Yes, like a tree, a movement starts out small, but it becomes such an integral part of us that we can no longer decipher where the movement ends and we begin, for as the tree provides our lungs with the oxygen we need in order to survive, a movement breathes into our souls the hope we need in order to live.

The Green Belt Movement, founded in 1977 by Wangari Maathai, began with nothing more than a vision. Today, the ripples of its work have spread all across the globe, bringing with them hope for a better world. Considering that Wangari Maathai started out life as the daughter of a poor farmer in British-colonized Kenya and went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, it is worth taking a closer look at the life and work of this extraordinary woman and the movement she inspired. Wangari Maathai has led an exemplary life of social activism, and because of her commitment to nonviolence, demonstrated in conflicts such as the Uhuru Park struggle in 1989, she was able to inspire through the Green Belt initiative an effective social movement in Kenya, and one which continues to be a platform for much-needed progress and activism in her nation and all across the world.

To better understand the importance of the Green Belt Movement’s work and the magnitude of its impact, we must consider the reality of Kenya’s colonial legacy, a devastating reality that plagues many nations in Africa. The unjust ruling system implemented by the British in Kenya during the colonial period remains in many ways unchanged. It includes boundaries drawn arbitrarily or without consulting Kenyans themselves, and a hierarchical structure fashioned after Western values and traditions. After independence in 1963 and until 1992, there was only one political party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), whose first leader was Jomo Kenyatta, the man who led jubilant Kenyans into a new era of independence, followed by Daniel Arap Moi, the autocrat under whom much of Kenya’s previous hopes were dashed (Maathai). The colonial legacy continues to manifest itself through the destruction of culture and natural resources. Sustainability, whether environmentally, culturally, or economically, was virtually unpracticed during the colonial era, and to this day in nearly every region in Kenya there exist unfortunate examples of how much work remains to be done.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing Kenya today is the lack of effective Kenyan leadership. Despite many significant political advances in the past 17 years, including introducing a multi-party system and appointing women to important positions in the government, a serious disconnect remains between the governing and the governed. Unfortunately, as is all too often the case, those who suffer most from under-representation are the poor and marginalized, especially those living in rural areas. The average farmer and his wife, who may not have had more than a primary education, have virtually no voice at the policy table. The decision may be one that will directly affect the livelihood of that farmer’s family, but his opinions will go unheard.

The frightening lack of reconciliation and understanding amongst Kenyans themselves is another important issue which has existed since the colonial era, and which the Green Belt Movement has striven to address. This damaging colonial legacy makes itself painfully apparent in the “ethnic” clashes that flare up over the decades, leaving hundreds or thousands dead in their wake, and as a result of which no apparent good can come. The most recent example is the crisis that broke out immediately following the presidential election in December of 2007, which has left an estimated 1,000 people dead and 350,000 displaced, according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (Limo and Michuka). For a nation that once greeted its independence with unquenchable optimism and hope for its future, these are disheartening realities, indeed. 

The story of the Green Belt Movement begins in 1940, when Wangari Maathai was born. She grew up in a traditional rural Kenyan family, consisting of a father, his wives, and their children. During the 1940s and 50s Maathai’s father worked on a farm owned by a British man. In her autobiography, Unbowed, Maathai recalls growing up in a region rich with natural resources and beauty, and being part of a culture that celebrated its connection to the land and showed great respect for it. She was lucky enough to have been sent to primary school, despite the fact that she was a girl, that fees were expensive, and that most of her family and friends thought her education would be a poor investment. She worked hard and did well, and went on to secondary schooling in a Catholic high school. The students there were forced to speak English and were taught that speaking their native tongue was backward and uncivilized, even stupid. During Maathai’s high school years, Kenya was deeply involved in a fight for self-determination and independence from Great Britain, as the violent pro-independence Mau Mau movement rocked the nation.         

At age 20, Maathai was selected among some 300 other Kenyan young adults to travel to the U.S. to earn a degree in order to return thereafter to Kenya and become the leaders of a newly independent nation. President John F. Kennedy, who was very supportive of African self-determination initiatives, was instrumental in making sure the U.S. would foot the bill (Maathai 51). In the U.S., Maathai studied at Mt. St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas, earning a degree in Biology.

After receiving her Bachelor’s degree from Mount St. Scholastica in 1964, Maathai went on to receive her Master of Science in Biological Sciences from the University of Pittsburgh in 1966, and finally her PhD in Anatomy from the University of Nairobi in 1971. When Wangari first returned to Kenya directly from the U.S. in 1966, she experienced a harsh example of racial and gender discrimination while trying to get a job at the University of Nairobi. Not only was she mistreated because she was a woman, but she was treated unfairly because of her ethnicity, Kikuyu, and the fact that she was a well-educated and confidant woman (Maathai 73). These factors would continuously get Maathai into trouble with authority figures, especially Parliament and the government; but such discrimination also gave her the drive to fight against injustice, perpetrated not only against women but against all citizens of Kenya. While her children were still young, Maathai went through a painful divorce from her husband, a Member of Parliament. He made many false accusations against her, slandering her name and claiming that she had been an adulterer and did not respect him at home, even claiming that she caused him physical health problems. Maathai remained strong and survived the public distress, even though she suffered greatly as a result of the hardships brought upon her by her husband and his powerful colleagues.

Maathai had by that time become very involved with the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK), and served as their chairperson for several years, during which time she founded the Green Belt Movement, which operated under the umbrella of the NCWK. The Green Belt Movement (GBM) began as a small but pressing idea in Maathai’s mind. She envisioned developing a way to preserve and regenerate the environment in Kenya, the degradation of which she watched with increasing sadness and horror. Maathai’s vision was to come up with a response to address the specific challenges facing Kenya of deforestation, soil erosion and lack of water, the results of which were felt by Kenyans everywhere, although rural Kenyans and women were especially susceptible to suffering. Initially, the GBM operated under the auspices of the NCWK and out of Maathai’s own pocket. This project was ambitious, but Maathai saw it as a way to revitalize Kenya’s natural splendor that she remembered from her childhood, in addition to rousing positive change among the Kenyans themselves, who were buckling under the weight of Kenya’s political and economic woes.

The way it worked was simple. GBM would provide seeds to women, who would then grow and cultivate seedlings and young trees until they could be planted all around Kenya, at which time the GBM would compensate the women for their work. Thus, the movement began as a way to promote a healthier ecosystem, spread awareness of sustainability, and empower marginalized women and men by giving them a modest income and the sense that they were making life better for themselves and their children. While women were the most essential component of the GBM, men were also given the opportunity to participate and earn money. Because men were generally more educated than women, they played the crucial role of keeping records of how many trees were planted and where and how many survived the initial six-month period, so that the women could receive their compensation.

The Green Belt Movement was a unique organization from the start, in that it was a grassroots initiative, founded and upheld by Kenyans for the benefit of their own people. The GBM embraced and promoted six central projects in its early days: a tree-planting campaign, food security and water harvesting at household level, civic education, advocacy, Green Belt Safari, and Pan-African training workshops (Maathai 33). While its inspiration grew out of environmental motives, its mission soon encompassed much more than just planting trees. Today, the GBM openly recognizes itself as—and is proud to be—a movement that transcends environmental, political, and social realms. It proclaims of itself, “The Green Belt Movement is one of the most prominent women’s civil society organizations, based in Kenya, advocating for human rights and supporting good governance and peaceful democratic change through the protection of the environment. Its mission is to empower communities worldwide to protect the environment and to promote good governance and cultures of peace” (
Maathai, true to her spirited quest for social justice, was not content with merely planting trees, for she knew Kenya’s problems went much deeper than careless environmental practices. In a relentless pursuit of fairer democratic practices, she would play a critical role in speaking out against the government and the single-party state throughout the 1980s and 1990s. She advocated constantly for democracy and fair representation in Kenya at a time when autocratic regimes were the status quo in much of Africa.

Perhaps one of the best examples of Maathai’s commitment to nonviolent activism was during the Uhuru Park struggle in late 1989. Nonviolence for Maathai meant much more than merely abstaining from violent means. Nonviolence, as Gandhi defined it, is not merely the absence of violence, but rather a way of life in which nonviolent principles are upheld in every aspect of an individual’s actions (Cortright, 30-31). True, Maathai could hardly have been expected to pursue a violent campaign, but her commitment to nonviolent action stems not just from pragmatic reasoning but from deep-rooted principles. Maathai witnessed and experienced firsthand the damage that violence and repression inflict on people. She experienced the physical and emotional oppression of men, the government, and the police force, and saw that hatred and fear breed only more of the same. Her simple approach, the planting of trees, is the most eloquent of nonviolent tactics: to make a statement against environmental degradation and against the blatant disregard for the well-being of living things. Because she saw the direct correlation between the degradation of the environment and the degradation of the lives of Kenyans at the hands of an oppressive regime, she was compelled to use whatever means possible, while adhering to a dedicated policy of nonviolence and peace, to fight against the injustices she saw perpetrated every day in Kenya.

In the Uhuru Park struggle, Maathai was instrumental in speaking out against the construction of a proposed Kenya Times Media Trust business complex, which was slated to be built on the outskirts of the park, Nairobi’s own green belt. Horrified at the plans to build a 60-story tower, a parking garage for 2,000 cars, and a massive statue of President Moi, Maathai was determined to fight against such an outrage (Maathai 185-186). She was well aware that her adversary was a ruthless and dictatorial regime with a steadfast grip on power, and the fear of whom permeated all aspects of Kenyan daily life; it would take much more than a well-aimed pebble to knock this Goliath down.

Maathai’s initial plan of action was to simply write letters to officials inquiring about the Kenya Times complex and providing reasons as to why its construction would forever diminish the beneficial presence of Nairobi’s green lung. Her reasoning included the fact that the park provided recreation, respite, playgrounds, and played host to meetings and national celebrations. Well aware that her letters would more likely than not go unread at the office of the President, the provincial commissioner, and the minister for environment and natural resources, she also provided copies to the Kenyan press. Her primary concern at that point was to create a stir and alert authority figures to the fact that their precious Times complex would come at no easy price. Maathai writes of those early days of the campaign, “When the office of the president did not reply, I started writing to other offices, and the more I wrote the more they knew that I knew, and the more the word spread” (187). As with any campaign, spreading the word is the most difficult and most crucial first step.

At the time, Maathai’s voice was one of very few speaking out against the complex, but she was not deterred. As a result of her vocal stance and determination, Maathai began to feel the painful effects of speaking out against a harsh regime. She and the Green Belt Movement suffered humiliation and belittlement from the government, as Members of Parliament took to openly discrediting the Movement as a “bogus organization” (Maathai 191). Although one might assume that Maathai’s work ought to have spoken for itself and been counter-proof enough against the government’s accusations, it is important to keep in mind that the government still had a stranglehold on the mainstream press, and its grip on the public was still a menacing one. As a result, the average Kenyan dared not go against the regime, even if he or she may have in fact sided with Maathai.

Fortunately for Maathai, the fact that the government was reacting so outlandishly and harshly did after a time produce a positive effect. Because the government overreacted and was less than forthcoming with a decent answer to Maathai’s simple question as to why the Times complex ought to be built, its actions produced a backlash. The more the headlines read “MPs Condemn Prof Maathai” and “Prof Maathai Under Fire in Parliament,” the more the public and the international community began to see through the actions and words of the regime (Maathai 192). The debate began to break into the public sphere, and professional organizations, like the Architectural Association of Kenya, began to raise their voices in protest. Maathai was overjoyed to learn that Kenyans themselves had begun to take action into their own hands and, following her example, wrote letters offering personal statements as to why the complex should not be built. Despite these encouraging advances in the struggle, Maathai continued to wage her courageous campaign, knowing the work had only just begun. When in November of 1989 ground was broken for the complex in Uhuru Park, Maathai filed a legal appeal and issued a press release, both of which helped to garner more support from Kenyans themselves (195). Maathai’s struggle was now regular front page news.

By this time, President Moi himself had become frustrated with Maathai’s stubbornness and the apparent success of her campaign. He went to great lengths to discredit Maathai and bring down the GBM. At one point, he made the accusation that anyone who opposed the construction of the complex had “insects in their heads,” and he went so far as to declare that any foreign funding for Kenyan women’s development had to first pass through state channels (Maathai 196). Life for the GBM was not easy at that time. The most drastic of actions the government had taken thus far came in the form of evicting the GBM from its government offices. Despite these attacks on Maathai and the GBM, nothing could stop their work. As Maathai claims, “The government seemed determined to do all it could to take an axe to the Green Belt Movement, and I was equally determined not to let it,” and in fact, GBM continued to work with communities all over Kenya planting trees (198).

Victory, or as close to it as those fighting the Uhuru Park campaign had come thus far, came on January 29, 1990, when the government announced that it was scaling back its plans for the complex. The reality was that Kenyan officials, after a meeting with the World Bank and other donors, had concluded that the project was no longer feasible or profitable. It was not until February 1992, however, that the construction fence in Uhuru Park finally came down, providing concrete proof to Maathai and others who had opposed the Tower’s construction that they had won. Despite all odds and despite desperate attempts by the government to silence their efforts, they had done what many never thought possible. What did Maathai propose to do in celebration? She called others to join her in Uhuru Park to “dance, a dance of victory!” (203).

The Uhuru Park struggle was a unique campaign with a powerful purpose, and while its success meant that Nairobi’s green belt was spared from further urban encroachment, it also exposed how much work remained to be done in the fight for environmental, social, and political justice in Kenya. Uhuru Park would prove to be just one of many campaigns in which Maathai and the GBM would find themselves inextricably involved. It was no easy task going against a dictatorial regime, but Maathai never lost sight of her hope for a brighter future.

Because of Maathai’s steadfast vision and exceptional leadership, the role of the GBM in the fight for democratization in Kenya has received significant attention. In an Africa Today article written in 1996 by Bessie House-Midamba, the author argues that the GBM, along with several other women’s organizations in Kenya, was a crucial factor in the struggle for democracy in Kenya, and that its tireless efforts were vital in bringing about the transition from single-party to multiparty-rule, legalized in 1991. Their success, however, came at a high price. Because environmental policy and women’s empowerment have always been two of the fundamental principles behind the GBM, it is no surprise that the Movement has come head to head with the government on several occasions, a reality which was especially true during the first decade and a half of its existence, during which time the Uhuru Park struggle took place. Because of the GBM’s relentless pursuit of advocacy and protest in order to demand structural change, its core mission of planting trees to heal a broken Kenya quickly became just a tiny component of the work it was doing. The complex nature of the GBM’s work and its subsequent controversy stem from the fact that its work has opposed policy decisions “such as damming a river, evicting forest dwellers, or clearing up forestland,” and the confrontational strategy developed under the initiative of Maathai naturally resulted in it losing favor with the Kenyan government (House-Midamba, 297). The struggle was long and brutal, but as most of Kenya would agree, the present gains far outweigh any past anguishes.

Through their work, the GBM and other primarily women-powered movements have proven their capacity to chip away at the disconnect between the government and civil society by advocating and articulating their visions and goals for a fairer and more democratic society (House-Midamba, 306). By challenging the cultural, political, and economic problems within Kenya, Kenya’s civil society has garnered a lot of momentum and strength from women’s associational groups, especially the GBM. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, GBM’s strict policy of nonviolence has allowed it to transcend ethnic and cultural boundaries, thus fostering a greater sense of inclusiveness and progress that would have been impossible if its tactics had included violent or exclusionary means.

The achievements of the GBM are many and varied, and are made even more impressive when one takes into account the struggle and the numerous setbacks that the movement and its founder have experienced over the years. The problems were greatest during Moi’s 24-year rule that lasted until 2002, since the administration did not like the pressure that Maathai and GBM placed on them, and it especially did not like the international attention that GBM was able to garner.

Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement have come a long way from the days of oppression under a brutal and antagonizing government. More than 40 million trees have now been planted across Africa, thanks to the international GBM initiative. Because environmental advocacy remains the driving force behind the Movement, it has found a welcome position within the raging environmental debate that has begun to grip the world in an especially powerful way within the past few years, due in large part to global warming scares.

The GBM fits well into the international “green” initiative. In a 2001 Alternatives Journal article, Polly Stupples discusses the 2001 Global Greens Conference, the direction to which globalization is headed, and the role that developing countries will play. She argues that Maathai is well-positioned to act as a beacon of hope for the global green initiative, and as a symbol of the direction in which we must head if we hope to resolve the increasing severity of environmental and social degradation. She says, “Maathai’s commitment to social justice, to the environment, to participatory democracy … and to a peaceful means of getting there reflects the four fundamental principles of green politics. Understanding that environmental issues cannot be dealt with in isolation but are closely tied to problems of poverty, corruption and the unequal distribution of wealth has broadened the green political platform” (13). GBM’s work has brought to light the inseparable link between globalization, the environment, and social justice. Because of this, we can more readily appreciate the urgency of its work. We can also better conceptualize the importance of the GBM globally, and how it will certainly continue contributing to the dialogue and initiatives surrounding environmental and social justice issues.

One measure of the GBM’s success at surviving in an ever-changing world is the Movement’s website. The website is an informative and valuable resource for environmental activists, along with activists of any kind, because it houses links and resources to articles and pertinent information needed to fuel civil society movements, not just in Kenya but across the globe. The GBM has always been innovative and imaginative in how it chooses to reach the masses and inspire change, and its website provides solid proof of how GBM has successfully tailored its approach for the 21st century. It even includes a blog, with news and updates about the GBM and its work, along with updates on Maathai and current events in Kenya.

In a blog posting on January 11, 2008, Francesca de Gasparis, Director of the Green Belt Movement International-Europe, addresses the recent outbreak of election violence: “GBM’s approach of bringing communities together to resolve problems becomes even more critical at times like this. As the violence continues to subside, there will be plans to visit the affected areas and begin a process that will bring healing and reconciliation. We hope and believe that GBM communities will continue building upon their programs and planting more trees to help bring about peace” ( This posting and the plethora of other articles and information items on the website demonstrate how community education and involvement remain two of GBM’s most central values.

The Green Belt Movement has responded admirably since the outbreak of post-election violence in Kenya. Its most visible initiative has been the Peace Tent for Reconciliation. The purpose of the Peace Tent initiative is to “facilitate healing & reconciliation following inter- communal ethnic clashes since the Dec ‘07 elections” (  Additionally, the Peace Tent provides a forum for gaining support and relief, to record and share personal experiences, and to sign a petition in solidarity with the victims of violence (Green Belt Movement International 1). Wangari Maathai inaugurated the first Peace Tent in Nairobi in January of 2008, at which time she delivered an address, stating with the eloquence and optimism characteristic of her speeches, “We can make a deliberate choice to move forward together towards a more cohesive Nation State, where we can all feel free, secure, and at peace with ourselves and our neighbors” (Green Belt Movement International, 1).

The Peace Tents reflect the unbreakable spirit of the Green Belt Movement itself, for as long as there is unfair treatment of people, places, and the environment, its work must necessarily continue. Maathai’s movement may have started out small, with the modest goal of planting trees to improve the lives of a handful of impoverished women, but the journey it has made since that time and the extent to which it has become an integral part of Kenyan civil society have made it so that the Movement’s survival can never be threatened again. I believe we can continue to expect great things from Wangari Maathai, now a Member of Parliament and Assistant Minister for the Environment, and the Green Belt Movement, whose goal in the next decade is to plant one billion trees worldwide. Coming from any other organization, this might seem a lofty goal to reach – but coming from the Green Belt Movement, which has already overcome the impossible several times before, I do not doubt for a moment what it is capable of accomplishing, even with just a seed, a shovel, and plenty of hope.


Works Cited

  • Cortright, David. 2006. Gandhi and Beyond: Nonviolence for an Age of Terrorism.Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.
  • Gilson, Dave. 2005. “Root Causes: An Interview with Wangari Maathai.” Mother Jones(January 5). < (Accessed 5 May, 2008)>.
  • Green Belt Movement International. 2008. The Green Belt Movement International Newsletter (March). <>. (Accessed 15 April, 2008).
  • Green Belt Movement Website. <>.
  • House-Midamba, Bessie. 1996. “Gender, democratization, and associational life in Kenya.”Africa Today (July-Sept):289-306.
  • Limo, Lucianne and Maseme Michuko. 2008. “Kenya: ECK Faces Storm Over By-Elections.” The East African Standard (April 28). (Accessed 8 May, 2008).
  • Maathai, Wangari. 2006. Unbowed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Maathai, Wangari. 2003. The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience. New York: Lantern Books.
  • Stupples, Polly. 2001. “Green globalization.” Alternatives Journal (Issue 27.4):12-13.
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