By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
Image Credit: Life of Wangari Mathai (Link)
What started with seven seedlings on World Environment Day in 1977 has now grown to become one of the world’s biggest tree-planting and afforestation movement. The Green Belt Movement is an African-led grassroots movement that aims to grow an 8000km stretch of trees, vegetation and fertile land spanning the width of the continent. Originating from Kenya, it is a reforestation effort that also promotes sustainable development through environmental conservation and climate resilience. The movement centres women and girls to empower their local communities, foster democratic space and create sustainable livelihoods.
Planting the Seeds
In the mid-1970s, Professor Wangari Maathai began observing the challenges that women were facing in Kenya due to the ecological decline of the land. She saw water bodies drying up, forests being cleared and increased desertification of soil, due to environmental degradation. When speaking to women in her community, she realised that they were facing difficulties in carrying out their needs such as collecting firewood and water, meaning they had less time and energy to tend to crops or look after their families. Understanding the link between a decaying environment and the rising challenges to local communities, Dr.Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977. After a couple of years of struggling to get the movement running, it received support and funding from the National Council for Women of Kenya (NCWK).
Dr.Maathai started with the idea of planting trees to replenish the soil, protect watersheds, improve nutrition through the fruits and vegetables produced and having a source of fuel wood. She began by gathering small groups of women to do rainwater harvesting and collect seeds for trees and planted them in whatever containers were available, including old tins, cups and cans. She focused on training these women to grow low-tech, nutritious and indigenous foods as the yields would be high. In the beginning, the women faced plenty of resistance. While planting trees seemed like a simple and doable objective, government foresters and men in their society did not believe that uneducated women could rear and tend to trees. However, for these women in poor communities where employment was a daydream, this became a means to earn a small income – as small as 10 cents per tree that survived. It went a long way in providing the small field staff a measure of independence and power in their households and communities.
Nurturing the Tree
In 1981, the Green Belt Movement received “seed money” funding from the United Nations Development Fund for Women which allowed the movement to expand from a few tree nurseries to acquire enough nurseries to equip thousands of seedlings. From then on, in 1986, the movement spread to other African countries including Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia with the help of funding from the UN Environment Program. Dr.Maathai then launched the Pan African Green Belt Network and offered training and hands on-experience to women and environmental/developmental groups across the continent. From the get-go, the ultimate goal for Dr.Maathai was not just planting trees but also empowering and uplifting women to exercise their agency and equip them with the skills to become important stakeholders in traditionally male-dominated areas such as food-sovereignty and democracy. She galvanised thousands of African women through environmental stewardship and turned them into “foresters without diplomas” .
Women in rural Kenya have long shouldered the responsibility of ensuring the family’s food supplies and are known to be dependent on diminishing fuel wood supplies. The Green Belt Movement recognised the impact of deforestation on these women’s lives and homes and brought them together to strengthen their capacities not only to meet these responsibilities but also “prevent the deterioration of the resource base on which they are dependent”.  It has also been proven to be an effective source of income as saplings and seedlings grown in the nurseries are sold to farmers, schools, churches and other public institutions. Finally, in addition to raising awareness about the climate change and strengthening the grassroots to take action, the Green Belt Movement has also advocated against land grabbing, corruption and state-sanctioned deforestation. Making their cause, thus, a political one against the state, the Green Belt Movement also empowered its members to be active political citizens who know their rights and stand up for them.
As the movement grew, so did the challenges and hurdles. In 1989, advocacy and activism by the Green Belt Movement prevented the construction of a large high-rise in the heart of Uhuru park in Nairobi. In 1999, when members of the movement were leading a protest against the privatisation of the Karura Forest in Nairobi, they were met with violence from the police. Through all of the hardships, Dr.Maathai showed staunch commitment to not just protecting trees and the environment, but also democracy. From the beginning, drawing from ecofeminism, she recognised the intertwined nature of social, political, economic and environmental problems. In her autobiography, she noted that the Green Belt Movement’s larger vision is “to heal the wounds inflicted on communities…to rediscover their authentic voice and speak on behalf of their rights (human, environmental, civic, and political) …to expand democratic space in which ordinary citizens could make decisions on their behalf to benefit themselves, their community, their country, and the environment that sustains them.” 
Since the start of the movement, more than 51 million trees have been planted and more than 5000 nurseries have been set up in Kenya alone. According to the official page, this grassroots-led movement has not only improved deforested land but lifted thousands of families out of poverty and built resilient and environmentally-conscious communities. Dr.Maathai was elected as a member of parliament in 2002 as the Deputy Minister of Environment and Natural Resources and went on to become the first African woman and environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Today, the Green Belt Movement has “four main areas of activity— Tree Planting and Water Harvesting, Climate Change, Mainstream Advocacy, Gender Livelihood and Advocacy. Each area of work builds on and informs the others.” 
2. The Green Belt Movement of Kenya: A Gender Analysis by Catherine Wakesho