Wangari Maathai: A Seed of Hope that Grew

Special feature by Rosie MacLeod

‘The environment is the water we drink, the air we breathe. We cannot live without it.’
Wangari Maathai

Dr. Wanagri Maathai - founder of the Green Belt Movement


When questioned about the documentation of history and knowledge, Margaret Atwood famously described the past as ‘largely made of paper’[2] and the librarians and archivists as its ‘guardians’.[3] However, if you went to rural Kenya, you would see that the past, present and future is composed of and dependent on trees. Its guardian, responsible for planting 51 million of these, is Wangari Maathai (1940-2011). She described her tree planting revolution as ‘planting…a legacy for our children as our ancestors left us.’[4]

How would you react if you could see the beautiful countryside in which you grew up becoming destroyed by climate change? How angry would you feel if you now had to boil the same water once fit to drink straight from streams, now thick with eroded topsoil? That’s exactly what happened to environmentalist and activist Wangari Maathai. She knew the environment was deteriorating in her beloved rural Kenyan homeland and felt compelled to act.

The first Eastern African woman to receive a PhD, and also Nairobi’s first female senior lecturer of anatomy, Maathai observed the erosion of topsoil that flowed into the same streams in which she played as a child. That is, assuming the streams were still active, and had not already dried up as had much of the land.

This gave rise to a lack of food and water and extinguished wages for women farmers, rendered redundant when there was no firewood to fetch. Also arising in this destructive chain reaction was malnutrition and related diseases suffered by the children of Kenya’s rural space. The food and water deficit, as well as a shortage of the heat source necessary to cook, meant they missed nutrients vital to growing humans. This made for a severe lack of sustainability; the people would use up resources in order to eat on a daily basis, too hungry and poor to conserve and plan for a sustainable future.[5]

At the root of this regressive ecosystem of poverty was the depletion of tree species particular to the area. The system of environmental and poverty problems had been ignited by the removal of indigenous trees that would naturally flourish in the area. These had been replaced by commercial plantations of tea and coffee on public land that had been sold off and privatized for capital gain, a move overseen by the corrupt Kenyan government.

Empowering women to plant seeds and run their own farmsIn retaliation, Wangari Maathai started the still-active Green Belt Movement in 1977. She encouraged the would-be women farmers, unemployed by the lack of resources, to plant seedlings. This entailed the women bundling seedlings and soil into cellophane bags for transportation to the deforested areas, where they would reintroduce the seedlings.

It was Maathai’s vision to plant one billion trees.[6] If it grew to the size of an adult tree, Maathai would reimburse the volunteers the modest price of a seedling. To date, the Green Belt Movement has planted 51 million trees in Kenya, 5,000 people now drink straight from a much cleaner stream and a profit of $1,300 has been generated from the sale of timber.[7] Wangari Maathai’s afforestation revolution has counteracted soil erosion and reintroduced thick greenery to previously dry plains. With the profits from timber, the formerly unemployed women farmers have purchased beehives and goats and have in turn generated income through the sale of honey and milk. The detrimental ecosystem of decay and poverty is now reversed. This has all grown from one woman’s vision and the seed of hope she planted.

Maathai personally challenged foresters who came to privatize Kenya’s Karura Forest, saying she was prepared to ‘shed blood’[8] for it, which, given the struggle of her ancestors to uphold the environment, she regarded as nothing new.[9] Her story does not stop there.

Dr. Maathai wins the Nobel Peace PriceShe campaigned tirelessly against the corrupt government, demanding democratic votes, an act for which she was often vilified. She led many Kenyan women in a hunger strike to successfully secure the release of political prisoners. In 2004, she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for tirelessly promoting environmentalism as the antidote to poverty. For her, it was not only the fights against deforestation and poverty that went hand in hand but also the fights against corruption and erosion of resources.[10] Her daughter Wanjira observes that; ‘She never did anything to please but because she believed it was the right thing to do.’[11]

Following her death in 2011, the Green Belt Movement will this summer commemorate its founder and figurehead with an event in her name in London. To RSVP and for more information:

[1] ‘Wangari Maathai & The Green Belt Movement’

[2] Assmann, Aleida, ‘Canon and Archive’ in A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies

(Germany: 2010) p.103

[3] Ibid

[4] ‘Taking Root The Vision of Wangari Maathai’

[5] ‘Wangari Maathai & The Green Belt Movement’

[6] ‘Wangari Maathai Tribute Film’

[7] ‘Wangari Maathai & The Green Belt Movement’

[8] ‘Wangari Maathai Tribute Film’

[9] Ibid

[10] ‘Taking Root The Vision of Wangari Maathai’

[11] ‘Wangari Maathai Tribute Film’

Eco News Roundup: Communities around the country find ways to care for Earth

  • How have attitudes and best practices in the built environment translated to a better understanding of sustainability? This first article shows examples of living better harmony with our surrounding environment.

Communities around the country find ways to care for Earth

Communities around the country find ways to care for Earth

Sustainable living has gone mainstream. Whether they live in a LEED-certified vacation development in the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon or a quaint New England town with a goal of reducing carbon emissions, Americans celebrated Earth Day this year finding ways to better exist in harmony with the environment and their local communities. (Photo: Gary Hall Photography)
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  • Next we look at how community partnerships: Kessler Homes is the exclusive builder for the Southern Oaks community near Tallahassee, Florida. A new partnership with Leon Trees is shaping the future development of the community in many positive ways.

Eco News Roundup: Communities around the country find ways to care for Earth

Kessler partners with Leon Trees for green efforts

Kessler Construction, an award-winning custom homebuilder in Tallahassee, is making a positive environmental mark through their Earth Day and National Arbor Day efforts in partnership with Leon Trees and the Florida State University Environmental Service Program.

“When we decided to partner with Leon Trees we did not realize the huge impact it would have on the development of the Southern Oaks Community,” said President of Kessler Construction, Mark Kessler. “We are building smart, green, sustainable homes and Leon Trees helped us to expand our vision of sustainability beyond building materials,” Mark added. (Photo: Provided by Kessler)
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EarthTalk: Ways to Support Earth Day

EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: How can I find Earth Day events near me or are there other ways to show my support for the green movement on Earth Day?                                                — Jessica Monteleone, Bridgeport, CT

Caring for the EarthApril 22, 2015 is the 45th annual celebration of the first Earth Day in 1970, when 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Back then, thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment, while grassroots groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife realized they shared common values—and a unified environmental movement was born.

The spirit of that first Earth Day lives on every year when April 22 rolls around, but nowadays hundreds of millions of people around the world honor the planet and pledge to do their part to protect it. The non-profit Earth Day Network (EDN), founded by the organizers of the first Earth Day in 1970, helps organize events and rallies around the world by providing information and resources and serving as a central clearinghouse for local listings. EDN’s international network tops 22,000 organizations in 192 countries, while its U.S. program assists more than 30,000 educators and helps activists coordinate thousands of community development and environmental protection activities throughout the year.

If you’re looking to participate in an Earth Day event or rally near you, EDN’s “Find an Earth Day Event” database has you covered. Browse by country, state/province and city. And if you can’t find something near you, Earth Day Network can provide the resources to start your own. Even if it’s last minute, it still counts.

Even if you can’t attend an event in person, you can help the cause by “pledging an act of green” — committing to do something on behalf conservation and the environment (even simply reducing home energy consumption) and posting accordingly to the EDN website — or by signing onto one or several of the group’s petitions. The Climate Petition tells leaders to phase out fossil fuels, while the “Support Environmental Education” drive calls on Congress to reinstate funding to schools for sustainability topics.

Another way to help spread awareness on April 22 is posting about your commitment to the environment via social media. Tell your Facebook friends or Twitter followers why protecting the planet is so important to you and to all of us. Start a Reddit discussion on green initiatives in your town or neighborhood. Post your favorite nature images to your Pinterest board or Flickr account.

Anyone near Washington DC might want to head for the National Mall on Saturday April 18 for the Global Citizen 2015 Earth Day Rally, a joint project of the Global Poverty Project and Earth Day Network, which will feature live musical performances by My Morning Jacket, Train, Fall Out Boy, Mary J. Blige, Usher and No Doubt, while Don Cheadle, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim will address the crowd as well. If you can’t make it to the Mall in person, Youtube is providing a free livestream of the day’s festivities and should run the clips indefinitely.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E – The Environmental Magazine.

Image credit: Lilou Merlin, courtesy flickr

Eco-Friendly Gold Extraction: How Cornstarch is Revolutionizing the Mining World

Is there an eco-friendly way to extract gold?Mining gold has never been considered an environmentally friendly process. In order to get gold out of the earth, extremely toxic cyanides are sprayed on crushed ore to help with the extraction process. While effective, using cyanides regularly leads to environmental contamination, making this a less than ideal method of mining gold. However, up until now, all of the alternatives were either too expensive to consider or they had serious contamination concerns of their own. A recent discovery, though, identified cornstarch as a viable option in making the process of gold extraction much better for the Earth.

The role of cornstarch in gold mining

Cornstarch is an inexpensive, relatively common household product that is typically used to thicken up sauces and soups. Researchers determined that cornstarch could be used to extract gold, even when other metals were present. In addition, there is potential for this new process to get gold out of consumer electronic waste as well. It is important to note, however, that there are several ingredients involved in the process in addition to cornstarch.

An unexpected discovery

The discovery happened as researcher Zhichang Liu attempted to make a cubic structure that would hold small molecules and gases. As he worked, he used two aqueous solutions. One came from alpha-cyclodextrin, which is starch-derived, and the second came from gold salt. Liu combined the two solutions and the result was the formation of small needles rather than the cubes that Liu wanted to create. The researcher, however, was intrigued; his experiment then took a different turn as he decided to look closely at the needles to figure out what they were.

The impact of Liu’s research

Liu went on to do further research, combining a variety of complexes with aqueous solutions. When all was said and done, he figured out that alpha-cyclodextrin was able to isolate gold very effectively. Alpha-cyclodextrin is made up of six glucose units and happens to be a cyclic starch fragment. Researchers were excited by the discovery; removing cyanide from the gold mining process means that extraction can take place in an environmentally friendly way. As a bonus, the new solution is also inexpensive, making it a viable option going forward.

When people hear the words “eco-friendly,” they generally think about green cleaning solutions, carpooling to work or changing their lightbulbs. However, mining gold could soon join the list, a development that comes as a surprise to researchers and miners alike. While using cornstarch to extract gold is not something that anyone could have predicted, the fact that it is affordable and much less harmful to the environment than cyanide has the mining industry buzzing.

Image credit: James St. John, courtesy flickr


EarthTalk: National Food Policy

EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Is it time for a National Food Policy to curb obesity and Type-2 Diabetes? Dear EarthTalk: What is the “National Food Policy” that environmentalists and foodies are asking President Obama to enact by Executive Order, and how would it affect American diets? – Justin Brockway, Los Angeles, CA

A November 2014 op-ed piece in The Washington Post entitled How a National Food Policy Could Save Millions of American Lives makes the case for President Obama to sign into law an executive order establishing a national food policy for managing the nation’s food system as a whole.

Authored by food writers Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan, along with Union of Concerned Scientists’ Ricardo Salvador and United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, the op-ed states that because of unhealthy diets, a third of our kids will develop Type 2 diabetes—a preventable disease that was formerly rare in children.

“Type 2 diabetes is a disease that, along with its associated effects, now costs $245 billion, or 23 percent of the national deficit in 2012, to treat each year,” the authors note. “The good news is that solutions are within reach—precisely because the problems are largely a result of government policies.” The authors cite Brazil and Mexico—countries they consider “far ahead of the United States in developing food policies”—as examples for positive change: “Mexico’s recognition of food as a key driver of public health led to the passage last year of a national tax on junk food and soda, which in the first year has reduced consumption of sugary beverages by 10 percent and increased consumption of water.”

While the White House has not responded in any way to the suggestion thus far, the article’s message that the current food system has caused “incalculable damage” remains alarming.

Whether or not to pass our own tax on junk food and soda in the U.S. has been the subject of much debate in recent years. Some say it’s deceitful to suggest that a tax on sodas is necessary to curb obesity and Type 2 diabetes when numerous other unhealthy options like sugary caffeinated beverages, candy, ice cream, fast food and video games that promote sedentary behavior would still be widely available. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Public Economics suggests that soft drink taxation leads to a moderate reduction in soft drink consumption by children and adolescents; however “this reduction in soda consumption is completely offset by increases in consumption of other high-calorie drinks.” Furthermore, in 2010, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg stated that “an extra 12 cents on a can of soda would raise nearly $1 billion,” which suggests that government officials expect people to continue buying soda despite the tax.

Even though passing a soda tax has proven to be controversial, The Washington Post op-ed clearly points out the federal government’s contradictions concerning food. Existing federal guidelines for the U.S. diet, known as MyPlate, recommend that half the food we eat should be fruits and vegetables, yet these foods are granted less than one percent of farm subsidies. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of subsidies go toward corn and other grains. The result, the op-ed states, is the “spectacle of Michelle Obama warning Americans to avoid high-fructose corn syrup at the same time the president is signing farm bills that subsidize its production.”

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E – The Environmental Magazine.

Image credit: SteFou, courtesy flickr