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Updated: March 20, 2010 18:20 IST

Planting ideas

MARIANNE DE NAZARETH
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Wangari Mathai: Saving a continent's shrinking forests.
AFP Wangari Mathai: Saving a continent's shrinking forests.

Nobel Laureate and founder of the Green belt Movement, Prof. Wangaari Mathaai opens up about how her tree planting initiative has helped stop the desertification of Africa and also empowered poor women across the continent.

She's not your typical African woman; tall and heavily built. Yet Wangaari Mathaai exudes the elegance and stature of the well known Nobel laureate that she is. In 2004 Professor Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for her contribution to, “sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

Today she is the UNEP's messenger of peace. In a combination of science, social commitment and an active role in politics, Wangaari is a huge champion of women's rights in particular and human rights as a whole. Famous for founding what is known as the Green Belt Movement, Wangaari explains during an interview at the 11th special session of the governing council/ global ministerial environment forum in Bali, Indonesia last month, how she mobilised the help of poor women to plant 30 million trees as her fight against the desertification of Africa.

Professor Mathaai was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. She obtained a degree in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas (1964). She subsequently earned a Master of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh (1966). Later she pursued doctoral studies in Germany and the University of Nairobi, obtaining a Ph.D. (1971) from the University of Nairobi where she also taught veterinary anatomy.

However what earned her the Peace prize was her massive tree planting initiative that she began way back in 1976 when she was the Chairman of the National Council of Women. This grew into a grassroots movement called the Green Belt Movement where women planted trees in their backyards and church properties. Today the Green Belt Movement has two branches; one in Kenya and the other an International movement. “The planting of trees is the planting of ideas. By starting with the simple act of planting a tree, we give hope to ourselves and to future generations,” says Wangaari quite simply.

What is the background of the Green Belt Movement?

I started the Green Belt Movement in 1977 in response to the challenges of deforestation, soil erosion and lack of fresh water in Kenya. The act of planting a tree is helping women throughout Africa become stewards of the natural environment. It is through women the sustainable management of scarce natural resources like water and equitable economic development is achieved.

You began planting trees well before anyone talked about Green Carbon, carbon sequestration and the importance of the preservation of forests.

The protection of the environment is an issue I have always felt fiercely about. I believe you can bring about peaceful democratic change through the protection of the environment. Today, more than 40 million trees have been planted across Africa. And as a result the fears of soil erosion have been reduced in critical watersheds, thousands of acres of biodiversity-rich indigenous forest have been restored and protected. Besides this the movement has supported hundreds of thousands of women and their families who are standing up for their rights and those of their communities and so are living healthier, more productive lives.

What is your reaction to the announcement that India had joined the Plant for the Planet: Billion TreeCampaign?

India has pledged 2.6 billion trees; that is fantastic! I thank India for joining the campaign and supporting UNEP to raise awareness that we all have to do something to save the environment. Tree planting is a simple act and everyone and anyone can participate. Children, families, the private sector, schools, colleges and youth groups should support this initiative and support community tree planting drives. This should become a global campaign and India is showing the way to other developing countries by voluntarily pledging 2.6 million trees. That is a massive intervention and I am glad India is taking this initiative, which is important to cut back on Green House Gas emissions.

You have empowered the poor women of Kenya, tell us about it.

I placed my faith in the rural women of Kenya from the very beginning, and they have been key to the success of the Green Belt Movement. Through this very hands-on method of growing and planting trees, women have seen that they have real choices about whether they are going to sustain and restore the environment or destroy it. In the process of education that takes place when someone joins the Green Belt Movement, women have become aware that planting trees or fighting to save forests from being chopped down is part of a larger mission to create a society that respects democracy, decency, adherence to the rule of law, human rights, and the rights of women. Women also take on leadership roles, running nurseries, working with foresters, planning and implementing community-based projects for water harvesting and food security. All of these experiences contribute to their developing more confidence in themselves and more power over the direction of their lives.

Our goal in the next decade is to plant one billion trees worldwide. A healthy natural world is at the heart of an equitable and peaceful society. And protecting the environment is something every individual can take part in.

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