Wangari Maathai has gained wide acclaim for her work on environmental issues in Kenya and beyond. Photo by: Brigitte Lacombe

Climate change wasn’t yet on everyone’s mind when Wangari Maathai started the Green Belt Movement in the late 1970s. More than 30 years later, this Kenyan grass-roots movement has grown into a worldwide effort to promote environmental stewardship and civic education.

To date, GBM’s efforts have lead to the planting of more than 40 million trees throughout Africa to stop soil erosion and deforestation. In Kenya, the movement’s members played a crucial role in holding the government of former President Daniel arap Moi accountable for its misuse of natural resources.

For her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace, the Norwegian Nobel committee honored Maathai and the movement with the 2004 peace prize.

Maathai spoke with Devex about the “green farming revolution” in Africa and the partnerships GBM is forging with governments, nonprofits and others. Maathai also explained how GBM seeks to empower the poor and ensure peace, and how social entrepreneurs may start a similar movement.

In a separate article, Maathai discusses aid reform and her book, ”The Challenge for Africa.”

What would your advice be to others who are eager to start a similar movement? Specifically, how can they get poor communities engaged in environmental or governance issues when they face so many daily hardships?

Well, I think a close study of the GBM shows that even when people are poor - they don’t have firewood, their land is degraded - they have to recognize that they are caught in a trap, they are in a vicious cycle were the more they mine their environment, the environment will get poorer and the more they themselves will get poorer. And they get trapped in a vicious cycle. And you need to break that cycle. And the activities of the GBM break that cycle. So, no matter how poor we are, we really need to understand that we have to break that cycle. It begins with turning the tide and reclaiming the environment.

There is a big push in Africa for a new “green farming revolution.” How can it be assured that helping small farmers is ecologically sustainable but still attains food security?

Well, I don’t know whether the green revolution intends to go commercial or it’s going to work with the small-scale framers. And I think that in the past, such efforts have not been very successful. I think personally, we need to work first and foremost with the farmers, we need to work with local people who are informed.

I think the whole idea of bringing in foreign people to come and do green revolution in Africa - the kind that for example we have in Kenya at the moment, where the government of Qatar is suggesting to the government of Kenya that they come and they lease our land and come and produce food - I think this is counterproductive for the African people in the long term. You can’t have people coming from a desert to come and help you and grow food for you. That definitely will not work. They will produce food for themselves, they will use your land, but surely the African leadership cannot be so desperate that they cannot invest in their own people and instead prefer a green revolution that comes from outside.

But a green revolution that starts working with the farmers …, that is committed, that is willing to work with its people - convincing the African graduates and technicians that they should work with their people rather than run away from their neighborhoods or imagine that the only contribution they can make is if they sit in the office at the capitals and shuffle papers - that to me is where the revolution should go. It’s investing in the people and it’s investing in the education of the people. It’s in educating the African people to embrace different values than what they have today.

And, it’s not only the peasant farmer who is going to do that. The peasant farmer is waiting to be guided by those who are educated. But, quite often, the ones who get education in African just want to stay in the capital, shuffle papers, drive a good car, live in a good house and expect development to take place. No revolution can take place that way.

Devex has a broad membership base - from donor agencies to multinational companies and nonprofits. Who are your current partners, and what types of partnerships are you seeking, if any?

The GBM tries to partner with everybody. We partner of course with the Kenyan government at the moment; it is a major partner and we are very happy about that. We also partner with the companies. And they’re very many companies in Kenya that are very willing and really urging us to work with them, because they want to make contributions. Our biggest problem sometimes is capacity, having people who are sufficiently aware and efficiently informed and therefore able to tap the goodwill of the many companies that want to work with us. I think we are lucky that way.

But the other thing is getting enough money. Sometimes companies would want to work with you but they just want to by give you a small amount of money because they want pictures and their name being associated with the good environmental work, but they don’t want to give you enough money to have a long-term commitment and [for] you [to] engage people whom you can keep employed - because, you know, our work is partly voluntary at the grassroots level, it’s partly voluntary. But we also spend a lot of money on compensating the women for producing the trees and planting them and making sure that those trees survive. Therefore, we have a lot of staff that are constantly working with these groups. That’s why we are constantly fundraising. And in fact, I hope you will give people our Web site,, so that they can maybe read about us and if they like what we do, maybe support us.

Are there any particular fundraising goals or funders that you would like to look for at the moment?

Well, I don’t think I would mention a particular group. We talk to as many groups as possible. Then, sometimes, occasionally, we come across a donor who is interested in partnering with us. For example, recently we started working with the Nature Conservancy (TNC) in protecting forests and wetlands. And, it’s just beginning, but we hope we can have a long-term commitment with organizations like that.

What are some of the current initiatives at the Green Belt Movement? Is it planning on expanding the tree planting and community mobilizing model to other products or issues?

Ah, yes. Well, you know, we plant trees, but we also are involved in many other activities. The actual physical tree planting campaigning is our entry point into communities. We have education as a major component. We have advocacy as another major component. Especially advocacy to protect wetlands, to protect biodiversity and to protect forests. And we also have advocacy to protect biodiversity.

For example, the work we are doing with the TNC, we are planting trees in forest that has been degraded and we are to rehabilitate that. We are also trying to plant trees with farmers on their own land and we are trying to rehabilitate a lake. People who know Kenya like you know Lake Naivasha, which is, as you know, a very important freshwater lake in the rift valley, but which is threatened with not enough water getting into that lake due to diversion and also the decrease of water getting into the lake and at the same time a lot of extraction by the flower industry that surrounds the lake.

So, we enter into a community and start tree planting because that’s an easy starting point, and it is something that everyone can understand and most people can do. And once we have gotten the attention of the people, we venture into other issues. We talk about human rights issues, we talk about women’s rights issues, we talk about equity issues. We are trying to address the issues that would make the entire community have better livelihoods.

How has the GBM helped to heal the rifts in Kenya after violence erupted after the December 2007 elections? What needs to be done to help the still-displaced return home?

Now, after the breakout of the… First of all, I should say as a leader of the GBM: I tried very hard - even though I was in the government - I tried to raise my voice to try to say that it was very, very important for us in the government and the various political parties that had formed the government to try to be fair and honest to each other and not break the promises that have been made with each other.

Now, very few people listened. And then, when we went into the constitution making, the GBM representatives were very keen to address the issue of land, which is a very important issue in Kenya, the issue of distribution of land, the issue of better management of land and as a consequence, water. And as you know, we did not agree on the constitution and eventually that’s what created the rift that eventually played itself out at the end of the elections, because we entered the elections a very divided country.

Now, during the crisis and after the crisis… During the crisis, the GBM established what we have called “peace tents,” and we have been able to go to the areas mostly in the Rift Valley, talking to the communities that were affected - mainly really encouraging people to understand that politicians use the issue of land, issue of ethnicity, and the issue of equity as good issues during elections that can easily divide people, trying to tell people that really the answer to all these problems mainly is to take care of our environment because if we take care of our forest we will have our water, we will have rain fall if we have our water, and even the land that we are fighting over will be more useful and valuable - because if the land is a desert, it won’t be valuable to anyone, anyway.

And we have continued with education along these lines. And also, [we have been] trying to make the poor to understand that politicians will continue to use them as long as they are willing. As you know, we have civil and environmental education and in the civic education, we try to make people understand how we govern ourselves, why we are the way we are, as Kenyans, how divided we are and why we are divided.

So, I would say that the GBM has tried to encourage people to understand the message we are known for, and that’s the message that if you don’t manage the resources responsibly and if you don’t share those resources equitably, sooner or later there will be conflicts and usually conflicts are brought by politicians who incite us. And they usually incite us around the issues of resources that are scares, like land or water.

This work continues. But we have a very good partner that we work with: the Green Cross of Sweden. I would say it has been very successful. But, I also know that even though the GBM has been able to cross over communities… And for us, to be able to work in an environment where ethnicity is not perceived to be a major issue… During the campaign, people forget all that and follow their leaders and what their leaders tell them. They almost forget about the other parties that have been running.

But, it’s a long-term thing.

Read more from our interview with Wangari Maathai.

About the author

  • Oliver Subasinghe

    Oliver joined Devex in late 2008 as an international development correspondent and researcher. He previously served as a microfinance fellow for Kiva in Kenya and Uganda. During his tenure, he worked with Kiva’s field partners to improve their operations and governance. Oliver holds a master's in business from the College of William & Mary.