The green belt movement is best known for fighting Kenya’s deforestation by organizing women to plant belts of trees. Like most African countries, Kenya was colonized in the 1800s, colonizers cut down the forest to make way for tea and coffee plantations which deeply harmed the ecosystem, a practice that continued even after independence, by 1978, the forest cover had fallen from 30% to just 2% of the land area.
In 1977 Professor Wangari Maathai founded the green belt movement, it was born “to respond to the needs of rural Kenyan women who reported that their streams were drying up, their food supply was less secure, and they had to walk further and further to get firewood for fuel and fencing.” The green belt movement, under the National Council of Women of Kenya, initially encouraged women to work together to plant trees and reforest Kenya as a solution to their problems. Professor Maathai’s approach was “practical, holistic, and deeply ecological: the tree roots bound the soil, halting erosion and retained groundwater following rains. This in turn replenished streams, and the trees provide food, fodder and fuel”.
Shortly after, she realized that there were deeper issues behind the environmental struggles of the less fortunate. This realization made her want to expand to other projects that included protecting public land, improving household food security, civic education, income-generating activities, and improved cookstoves.
To better understand the organization, the importance of its environmental and social work, we must know a little more about it’s founder, and why she is such an important figure in Kenya, Professor Wangari Maathai, was an internationally renowned Kenyan social, environmental and political activist and the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize. She is the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, with an extensive scholar background in biology and environmental science. She was also very active politically regarding human rights, and had addressed the UN on multiple occasions representing the National Council of Women. In 2009 as recognition of her commitment to the environment the UN named her UN Messenger of Peace. Professor Maathai passed away on September 25th of 2011 at the age of 71, memorial ceremonies were held in Kenya, New York, San Francisco, and London.
Nowadays the green belt movement focuses on four main areas of activity; “tree planting and water harvesting, climate change, mainstream advocacy, gender livelihood and advocacy”. This organization is a clear example of how social and environmental causes must be fought with an intersectional approach.