Beyond Wangari Maathai: Why the Spirit of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement Died With Its Founder

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NAIROBI, Kenya – The most famous speech by Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist, political activist and the first African female to win the Nobel Peace Prize, is a fable of a forest on fire: While all the big animals watched helplessly from afar, a little humming bird was trying to quench the fire. The other animals discouraged him by saying that he was too tiny, his beak was too small and a drop of water was all he could do at a go. Undeterred, he simply explained, “I am doing the best I can.” Wangari Maathai was that hummingbird: to Kenya, to Africa and to the rest of the world.

Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, with Barack Obama in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2006.

Fredrick Onyango / Wikimedia Commons

Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, with Barack Obama in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2006.

She founded the Green Belt Movement in Nairobi 1977 to address disempowerment and disenfranchisement of women as well as environmental conservation decades before these causes were sensationalized. A true environmentalist at heart right to her very end (she was buried in an environment-friendly water hyacinth coffin), she was the face of conservation and empowerment in Kenya. Her passion was clear as she was famous for saying: “As soon as I recover, I shall return to Karura forest, even if they bury me there,” after being beaten unconscious by armed guards.

With her passing in September 2011, less prominent persons have replaced her at the Green Belt Movement to advocate environmental conservation in Kenya. Has the torch passed on or did the tenacity, clarity and spirit behind it die with the visionary? A look at the situation at the Mau Forest Complex in Kenya might answer this question: There, restoration efforts are underway following excisions and encroachments of the indigenous forest – but in a way that is deeply unsatisfactory.

The Mau Forest Complex covers approximately 416,542 Hectares. It is the largest closed‐canopy mountain forest ecosystem in East Africa. The forest stretches over hills from the Rift Valley to Lake Victoria. It is important for river flow regulation and flood mitigation as it stores and purifies water. It reduces soil erosion, protects biodiversity and regulates a specific microclimate that provides favourable conditions for crops.

Some of the lakes boast over 450 species of birds, both Maasai Mara National Reserve and Serengeti National park are famous for the great wildebeest migration, dubbed the eighth wonder of the world. The Kenya Forest Research Institute (KEFRI) estimates the economic benefit of the forest to be worth 1.3 billion US Dollars per year.

But the imagined forest on fire materialized before the very eyes of the Kenyan people: In 2009, in a project concept for the rehabilitation of the Mau Forest Ecosystem, the Kenyan Interim Coordinating Secretariat said: “The pace and severity of degradation of Kenya’s forests has generated increasing publicity and concern over the past two decades. The cause of this destruction is change of land use from forest to agriculture, and change in ownership from public to private. During the past two decades, there has been extensive encroachment as well as irregular forest land allocation, exacerbating an already serious situation.” Indeed, perennial rivers have dried out, some of which serve the River Nile Basin, for example, or Lake Turkana which borders Kenya and Ethiopia.

The Interim Coordinating Secretariat of Kenya is responsible for the restoration of the Mau Complex. In September 2009, it seemed as if a national – if not multinational – crisis was averted in time: A project concept was drafted, after which the restoration was scheduled with a hefty budget of 81 Million US Dollars for just the initial three years.  There was even a mandate and the political will to relocate existing settlers.

However, five years down the road, the Interim Coordination Secretariat has barely made an impact: Just 25% of the land has recovered. Having failed to complete the first medium actions, long-term goals of indigenous tree planting in critical areas and biodiversity restoration remains just a pipe dream. The grand scheme is yet to prove its worth.

What is more alarming is the silence from environmentalists. They have not alerted the public that this project has barely kicked off, they have not put the government to task. The late Wangari Maathai literally tied herself to trees and did not even blink when faced with heavily armored policemen who made good their violent threats. Following her death, it seems that environmentalists now shy away from issues where political and ecological issues intertwine and where their very existence will be threatened politically. This is an alarming conflict of interest. And it is a rather disappointing contrast to the woman who, in 1989, stood up to the President of Kenya to successfully protest the construction of the country’s tallest skyscraper on the site of a public park.

The sensitivity and importance of the Mau Forest Complex is evident as it was one of the political pledges of the current government to handle resettlement in the first 100 days in power. On the other hand, after the former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, carried out the evictions he was negatively affected, losing the support of the locals and ultimately the presidency.

For a woman who devoted her life to saving and planting 51 million trees, the snail-paced progress on reclaiming and restoring the forest land seems to show that the fire has indeed been dampened. Resounding silence instead of fervent protests begs the question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Kenya's "Greenbelt Movement" above all wants to empower women to conserve the environment

Green Belt Movement (free media resource)

Kenya's "Greenbelt Movement" above all wants to empower women to conserve the environment

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