Part 2: Wangari Maathai & The Green Belt Movement

”She Thinks Globally, Acts Locally”

Thanks for coming back for part 2 of the Wangari Maathai story! ‘Thinks globally – acts locally’ is a quote from her place on the Nobel Peace Prize website & it speaks a thousand words…  In this blog I’ve focused on environmental/political activism and the formation of ‘The Greenbelt Movement’.

Humanity: A Shift in Consciousness

“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness…to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.” Quote from Wangari Maathai

  • How did she achieve this Shift?
  •  “She thinks globally and acts locally”
  • She fought for what she believed in in the face of intimidation and negativity
  • She took positive action without breaking the law.
  • She stood up to those in power and challenged all that was wrong
  • She shared her knowledge with the wider community
  • She motivated people around her to act peacefully and pro-actively

Political/Social Change – What Exactly did she Strive For?

  • Advocate for resource management, environmental awareness, gender equality, democracy more….
  • Founded the ‘Green Belt Movement’ (see next section) which is all about empowering women to take back control of their land and create a more sustainable environment.
  • Fought against corruption in the government.
  • Fought for Women’s Rights and empowered women to take a more central role in creating positive change.
  • Activism & Protests: Took part in many protests and campaigns. She never broke the law but always made a stand.

Specific Protests

Protest against the Destruction of Natural Habitats in Kenya. Wangari was responsible for a fair few successful protests. She was at the helm of one in particular, in opposition to the felling of precious forest habitat in Kenya. One day, the President simply decided to ‘give it’ to his political mates, who had noting more than money on their mind and no care for the environment. The plans threatened to destroy this area of valuable forest habitat in a country where much of the rare forests and natural ecosystems had been destroyed – either due to agriculture or mismanagement of resources. Luckily after countless protests led by the Green Belt Movement over the course of a year, this plan was thwarted and the forest remained. Had it not been for this, nothing would have been left of it.

Protection of Public Green Spaces in Nairobi Another notable example was the protest against the development on the only major green space in Nairobi – a precious park for all the inhabitants of the city and one of the few free access parks. The government (led by President Moi) was behind the plans to seize this public park of the inhabitants of Nairobi and to create a skyscraper in it’s place – along with a 4 story statue of the president! Now this was all to be funded by International institutions. So… Wangari protested directly to the British Government. She argued that the international financiers would never dream of doing this in their own back yards… would they fund a project to scrap Hyde park in central London? Especially when there are so many other important priorities which would be a better use of foreign investment. So why were they supporting it here? The government was of course infuriated that a mere woman would dare to go against them and involve the international funders. They tried to squash her, they tried to turn the people against her – her life was in serious danger. However, justice prevailed. The international community withdrew funds for the project. That was a turning point because people realized that if 1 mere woman could do this – then change was possible.

Campaigns for Political Prisoners: often these were young innocent men, educated men working for the greater good, yet imprisoned solely for their political views. Wangari, along with all the mothers campaigned for the release of the remaining political prisoners. They stayed 3 days and nights camped out in the park and by day 3 word had spread of their plight and people gathered in thousands to support them, including ex-political prisoners and citizens who were fed-up of the corruption. Finally the government decided to act, by letting loose on the crowd with incredible violence. The women were brutally attacked and Wangari ended up in a coma. But, the following morning the other women returned to the park and then Wangari later joined them in a civilized stand and peaceful protest.

More about the ‘Greenbelt Movement’ (GBM)

The GBM was set up in the late 1970’s to support struggling Kenyan women who were concerned about the state of the land following the colonial era and civil conflicts. Streams were drying up, drinking water was scarce, forests had been decimated, the soil was dry and prone to erosion because there was no biodiversity (monocultures of tea plantations had taken over the once rich forests) and no trees to trap rainwater, there was no firewood for fuel, food supply was scarce… Tribal conflicts were on the rise – fighting over resources. It was a growing disaster. The GBM had a practical plan to turn the country around…. tree by tree and garden by garden!

Wangari’s life goal was to protect precious resources, to protect common interests, to improve the quality of life of all the people. She believed that living in harmony with nature and restoring habitats could solve so many of the modern problems communities are facing today.

GBM Vision

A values-driven society of people who consciously work for continued improvement of their livelihoods and a greener, cleaner world

GBM Mission

We strive for better environmental management, community empowerment, and livelihood improvement using tree-planting as an entry point.

GBM Values

1. Love for Environment Conservation

2. Self and Community Empowerment

3. Volunteerism

4. Accountability, Transparency and Honesty


Growing and Cultivation

The solution for all these issues? Stop talking and start planting…. Simple but highly effective. Plant trees and plant gardens, restore natural habitats. The GBM worked mostly with women in small communities, who then went on to share their knowledge with other women in the community and so the revolution began. ”When we plant trees we plant the seeds of peace and hope”

Trees Can Save the World!

Since 1977, it has planted over 50 million trees in Kenya and provided extensive support & education to communities on food growing, self sufficiency and habitat renewal. By teaching women new ways on how to grow foods, they became self-reliant (regardless of what was going on in the rest of the country, they had some security). Biodiversity also increased dramatically and the landscape is now much healthier.

Sharing Practical Skills

The Greenbelt Movement also teaches specific skills relevant to the local area: which crops were more suited to the climate and soil. They also teach the women of the communities about soil and water quality; the importance of biodiversity; nutrition: which foods are nutrient dense; different cooking/preserving methods; the medicinal values of plants growing around them etc.. It was about the whole ecosystem with people being just a part of that.

Healthy, Self-Sustaining Communities

Soon, the women were reporting that their children are stronger and healthier and they didn’t need medicines like they used to because they are rarely ill! Whereas before when they were relying on a basic subsistence diet of corn, children were weak and malnourished and always getting sick.

So… this project is much more than a token planting of a tree for ‘greenwash’. It literally changed lives on so many levels. After doing this, access to food, medicine, shade and fuel increased dramatically. Communities came together, there was a reduction in fighting over resources. This is about dignity and self-reliance. This is what it is to be human and this is what more of the ‘aid’ organizations around the world should be focusing more on rather than simple rations.

Creating Social Change – Peaceful Activism

Based on some of her key speeches, here is a little summary of her philosophy on social change and activism. Greenbelt Movement


It was also not about blaming governments, but about people and communities taking responsibility for their own little patch of land. Wangari wanted to educated communities who were doing nothing proactive to help themselves. What stops people? Confusion, fear, lack of knowledge, lack of leadership, lack of the tools to make change? So… educational seminars were set up to educate and empower whole communities, to give them practical knowledge, tools and skills to help themselves – rather than waiting to be helped by a government which had no intentions of helping.


It is about empowering, teaching people to stand up for their rights – to fight against oppression of the common man and to protect their environmental rights.

Rallying the Women – the Heart of Communities!

The women are at the centre of village life and they are the best people to create the sort of long term change that was needed. She wanted women to have self-belief and purpose. She also believed that if women valued the natural world, they would pass this onto their children – the next generation. Women can change the world 🙂

Peace and Diplomacy – Not War

This was a quiet revolution of peaceful soldiers. They were not breaking the law by planting so they had no reason to be defensive! She also inspired confidence in these women to deal with ‘officials’ diplomatically when they were opposed to their planting schemes, by learning to use humour and a few choice words to diffuse tensions and manoeuvre around obstacles with stealth. One of my favourite quotes from her was ”move like serpent and stay calm like a dove” Wangari Maathai wanted a peaceful revolution – not a violent one.

Changing Perspectives…Little by Little

It all boils down to perspective. Waangari believed that our perspective had been skewed/lost somewhere along the line. Old values and traditions were lost, people were no longer living in harmony with nature, they no longer respected nature. The trees, the birds, the insects, the animals, clean water, sustainable food – these are all important. A society that is connected to nature is a healthy one. Peace naturally follows from this. The more people see the benefits that come from this, the more likely that they are to protect natural resources.


Along with her successful campaigns and activism, Waangari finally got some much deserved recognition. Despite all the tragedy and hardship, she had broken down barriers.

In addition to her Nobel Peace Prize, she was elected member of parliament and assistant minister for the Environment and Natural Resources. So rather than the government working against her, they were now working with her! She was also given a role of honorary Councillor for the World Future Council. Sadly, in 2011, just a few years after accepting her Nobel Peace Prize, she passed away. But her legacy lives on.

The Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies was established in her honour and the Greenbelt Movement still continues it’s work today.

So… this blog is dedicated to the late, great Kenyan Environmental & Political Activist Wangari Maathai (and all her fellow activists and colleagues for that matter) Visit the websites to find out more about what they do & please share this post x

Wangari Maathai Part 1:


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