Even in Sub-Saharan Africa, a region largely overlooked by global climate change research, a decades-long grassroots movement continues to advance in its reforestation efforts across the continent. The Green Belt Movement is a community-based nonprofit organization that promotes environmental conservation, gender empowerment, and improving livelihoods through the planting of trees. Founded in 1977 by Wangari Maathai, known as the “Queen of Trees,” the movement took root in rural Kenya before blossoming into an internationally acclaimed approach to address the effects of climate change in the region. Now, over 51 million trees and a Nobel Peace Prize later, the Green Belt Movement focuses on issues ranging from watershed rehabilitation to environmental justice, all the while galvanizing their founding principles on a global scale.
Although Sub-Saharan Africa is the world’s lowest emitter of greenhouse gases, the region is highly vulnerable to climate change as it lacks the resources required to respond and adapt to such environmental effects. Due to biofuel harvesting, commercial logging, agriculture, and overgrazing of livestock, much of Sub-Saharan Africa is rapidly transforming into either desert or grasslands in once-forested areas. The African landscape is especially susceptible to desertification—the expansion of desertlike conditions as a result of human activities. Desertification results in decreased agricultural productivity and dried-up watersheds, which in turn causes food insecurity in rural communities and cities alike.
In rural Sub-Saharan Africa, women are mostly tasked with livelihood activities, such as providing food and water as well as collecting firewood. Deforestation has had a profound impact on these women, who must travel increasingly farther distances to harvest wood, therefore spending less time cultivating crops and raising children. In response to reports from rural Kenyan women of dried-up stream beds, insecure food supplies, and unstable firewood sources, Wangari Maathai established the Green Belt Movement in 1977 with the help of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). The movement’s initial goal was to foster collaboration to grow seedlings, store rainwater, and share food and wood. With the reward of a small amount of income, impoverished rural communities were incentivized to practice environmental conservation.
The Green Belt Movement has proven successful through its use of “effective aid,” which gradually transitioned communities to environmentally-friendly, income-generating activities rather than expecting immediate change. Wangari Maathai, once a rural-based woman herself, understood the importance of steady progress, said, “if you push them [people] too much, they will do it while you are there, and once you pull back, they collapse.” Instead of forcing people, Maathai envisioned a system in which, through consistent collaboration and communication, the Green Belt Movement could equip rural communities with tools to conserve and benefit reforestation, a system that will be adopted by everyone in Kenya. In these villages, women are trained by members of the movement on how to plant tree seedlings and nurture them into saplings. After their initial growth, the tree saplings are then purchased by the Green Belt Movement for reforestation purposes, providing rural families with an alternative source of income. Families are encouraged to invest their profits into other income-generating or subsistence activities, such as beekeeping or livestock. Other rural communities also sustainably produce and sell timber directly for income.
The Green Belt Movement is a women’s rights movement as well as an environmental one. At the root of the environmental challenges that burdened impoverished communities were deeper societal issues of inaction and disenfranchisement of rural Kenyans. For this reason, Wangari Maathai expanded the Green Belt Movement beyond reforestation to address the lack of tools to develop economically in a sustainable way, specifically for Kenyan women. Maathai organized Community Empowerment and Education seminars (CEE) emphasizing the importance of the common good and sustainable use of natural resources. CEEs both challenged individual behavior and held national leaders accountable for their environmental shortcomings. Despite political backlash and instances of police brutality, the Green Belt Movement remains committed to spreading a message of environmentalism and democracy. Through the movement, rural women can generate income, foster community, and overall improve their situations with political action and economic empowerment. Maathai has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of women, using conservation as a means of equity.
Since its beginning on World Environment Day in 1977, the Green Belt Movement has achieved several milestones as an international campaign. According to the Green Belt Movement’s 2019 Annual Report, over 51 million trees have been planted across Kenya and other Sub-Saharan African countries. In doing so, approximately 900,000 women have helped to establish over 5,000 tree nurseries. At the turn of the 21st century, Kenya’s tree cover was less than 2% (the United Nations recommends countries have at least 10% tree cover). By 2019, largely through the work of the Green Belt Movement, Kenya’s tree cover was 7.2% and this number continues to rise. Reforestation of once-forested areas reduces soil erosion, improves soil fertility, absorbs more carbon dioxide, and ultimately slows the harmful process of desertification. Successful efforts to reforest Sub-Saharan Africa have led to increased food security and job creation as well as increased biodiversity and climate change resilience throughout the region.
Wangari Maathai herself, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 71, saw success as the founder of the Green Belt Movement. After being the first woman from East Africa to earn a doctorate degree, Maathai was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1991, one of only six individuals in the world to have received the honor. In 2004, she earned the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace,” becoming the first environmentalist as well as the first African woman to be named a laureate. Soon afterward, Maathai was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem. Furthermore, in 2006, she became a patron for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), influencing many of their own conservation campaigns. Throughout her lifetime, Maathai also published four successful books, including one on the conception of the Green Belt Movement, and produced a documentary. Following her death in 2011, UNEP said of Maathai, “she was, like the acacias and the Prunus Africana trees…strong in character and able to survive sometimes the harshest of conditions.”
With such accomplishments, Wangari Maathai inspired a world of women to become more involved in economic and social activities. By taking action against environmental stressors, women around the globe have physically felt the effects of utilizing environmental initiatives to better themselves. Additionally, the success of Maathai and the Green Belt Movement has drawn international attention to women’s rights in an environmental context, demonstrating how the state of the environment is intrinsically related to women’s ability to access food and potable water, achieve economic stability, and provide for their families. Maathai’s movement has been admired as “a testament to the power of grassroots organizing,” proving that one woman can inspire millions and alter the course of environmental history.
In the image of Wangari Maathai, the Green Belt Movement lives on. Maathai’s daughter, Wanjira Maathai, is the current president of the movement, following in her mother’s footsteps to continue the reforestation of Kenya. As well as collaborating with international organizations, such as the Sustainable Tropics Alliance and the Right Livelihood College, the Green Belt Movement participates in the annual Africa Security Forum and the global Forest Summit. Additionally, the movement played a vital role in UNEP’s Billion Tree Campaign, which began in 2006 and has planted over 11 billion trees worldwide to date. Presently, the Green Belt Movement campaigns internationally on tree planting, water harvesting, climate change, mainstream advocacy, and engaging women in their communities.
The Maasai Mau Initiative is a recent Green Belt Movement project to plant 10 million trees in an effort to restore the Mau Forest in Kenya and increase the country’s tree cover to a healthy 10%. Over 35,000 acres of land in the forest have been reclaimed willingly from settlers to begin work and the initiative has garnered attention from multi-governmental agencies, universities, and the general public. Once finished, the project has the potential to reduce and avoid 12 MtCO2eq (million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent) from the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem in which the Mau Forest is located.
The Community Bamboo Model for Kenya is another Green Belt Movement initiative teaching rural communities how to plant fast-growing bamboo as a sustainable source of firewood and income from bamboo products. The project aims to reduce poverty and the degradation of natural forests, therefore mitigating the effects of climate change in the country.
On an international scale, the Green Belt Movement currently supports the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), which was conceptualized at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris by about a dozen Sub-Saharan African countries. Referred to as the “New Green Belt Movement,” the AFR100 is the first regional effort of reforestation, with the goal of replanting 100 million hectares with trees by 2030. With the Green Belt Movement involving local communities and providing tools and training, several African nations, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Madagascar, Burundi, and Rwanda have committed millions of acres of land to the initiative. The Democratic Republic of Congo has committed twenty million acres separately and the West African countries in the Sahel have pledged to plant more trees to slow desertification. The AFR100 has been funded $1.5 billion collectively by the World Bank, the German government, and private funders and will be monitored by the World Resources Institute in the years to come.
The Goldman Environmental Foundation. (2018, March 21). The Green Belt Movement: 40 Years of Impact. The Goldman Environmental Prize. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://www.goldmanprize.org/blog/green-belt-movement
The Green Belt Movement. (2019). The Green Belt Movement Annual Report 2019. The Green Belt Movement. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from http://www.greenbelt
The Green Belt Movement. (2022). Our History. The Green Belt Movement. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://www.greenbeltmovement.org/who-we-are
Maathai, W. (2006, November 13). A Matter of Life and Death. The Guardian. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2006/nov/13/
Rowntree, L., Lewis, M., Price, M., Wyckoff, W. (2018). Diversity Amid Globalization: World Regions, Environment, Development (C. Botting Ed.). (7th ed.). Pearson Education.
Strides in Development. (2010, June 9). Wangari Maathai & The Green Belt Movement. [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com
United Nations Environment Programme. (2011). Professor Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, and Patron of the United Nations. UNEP. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://unric.org