Special feature by Rosie MacLeod
When questioned about the documentation of history and knowledge, Margaret Atwood famously described the past as ‘largely made of paper’ and the librarians and archivists as its ‘guardians’. 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.’
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.
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 These had been replaced by commercial plantations of tea and coffee on public land that had been sold off and privatized for capital gain, a move overseen by the corrupt Kenyan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.
In 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. 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. 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’ for it, which, given the struggle of her ancestors to uphold the environment, she regarded as nothing new. Her story does not stop there.
She 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. Her daughter Wanjira observes that; ‘She never did anything to please but because she believed it was the right thing to do.’
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: http://gbmlecture2015.eventbrite.com
 Assmann, Aleida, ‘Canon and Archive’ in A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies
(Germany: 2010) p.103