Green Belt Movement
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The Green Belt Movement (GBM) is an indigenous grassroots non-governmental organization based in Nairobi, Kenya that takes a holistic approach to a development by focusing on environmental conservation, community development and capacity building. Professor Wangari Maathai established the organization in 1977, under the auspices of the National Council of Women of Kenya.
The Green Belt Movement organises women in rural Kenya to plant trees, combat deforestation, restore their main source of fuel for cooking, generate income, and stop soil erosion. Maathai has incorporated advocacy and empowerment for women, eco-tourism, and just economic development into the Green Belt Movement.
Since Wangari started the movement in 1977, over 51 million trees have been planted, and over 30,000 women have been trained in forestry, food processing, bee-keeping, and other trades that help them earn income while preserving their lands and resources. Communities in Kenya (both men and women) have been motivated and organised to both prevent further environmental destruction and restore that which has been damaged.
On June 5, 1977 in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, trees were planted, marking the beginning of what would become an internationally influential movement that challenges the hegemonic structures of that oppress rural communities in Kenya. The Green Belt Movement’s mission is to “mobilize community consciousness for self-determination, justice, equity, reduction of poverty, and environmental conservation, using trees as the entry point”.
Wangari Maathai, the founder of the Green Belt Movement, grew up in rural community, called Ihithe, in Kenya. She later earned both a bachelor's and master's degree from universities in the United States. Maathai was the first Eastern African woman to receive a PhD from the University College of Nairobi, and was a leader in the ecofeminist movement. Her book, The Green Belt Movement (2003) is published by Lantern Books. Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work with the Green Belt Movement, becoming the first African woman to win. Although formal institutions, such as the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, recognized Maathai’s work, her work was not intended for legitimization but rather as a form of radical action against systems creating and reinforcing rural poverty.
This non-governmental organization (NGO) uses the direct action of planting trees and facilitating community education to change the current system of oppression that prevents women in rural Kenya from accessing education, resources, and land. This form of activism, as direct community empowerment, has been replicated around the world. The Green Belt Movement functions to support and provide resources to communities for the purpose of demanding democratic space and accountability from national leaders. For example, on the Green Belt Movement Website, a news link will update visitors on current cases of activism. On February 23, 2016, a press statement on the Karura Forest was published to the Green Belt Movement’s official website. This article calls for the public's help in addressing the current issue of land grabbing within the Karura Forest that violates the 2016-2020 strategic forest management plan created by the Kenya Forest Service and Friends of Karura Forest .
There are two divisions of the Green Belt Movement: Green Belt Movement Kenya (GBM Kenya) and the Green Belt Movement International (GBMI).
Key focus areas
The Green Belt Movement works in six principal areas, known as "core programs":
- Advocacy & Networking
- Civic & Environmental Education
- Environmental Conservation/Tree Planting
- Green Belt Safaris (GBS)
- Pan African Training Workshops; and
- Women for Change (capacity building)
Each of these programs is aimed at improving the lives of local inhabitants by mobilising their own abilities to improve their livelihoods and protect their local environment, economy and culture.
In 1972, the environmental movement revolutionised advocacy and policies surrounding environmental issues such as those in The United Nations Environment Programme, also known as (UNEP). UNEP was established in Nairobi as a result of the United Nation Conference on Human Environment held in Stockholm in the same year. This development helped arouse interest in the environment in Africa regardless of the fact that many governments in the region held hostile sentiments towards the policies adopted in Stockholm to limit environmental degradation. Soon after, Maathai served as chairwoman of the UNEP's Environment Liaison Center board, which today is called the Environment Liaison Center International. In 1974, Maathai's focus became forestation and reforestation issues. She introduced a tree-planting program and opened the first tree nursery, from which she formed Envirocare Ltd. Although this program experienced many setbacks because of a lack of funding and support, it facilitated Maathai's involvement with the National Council of Women of Kenya as a member of the Executive Committee in 1977. Her determination to inexpensively provide the rural women of the NCWK with sufficient wood for fuel, building, and soil conservation, inspired the Save the Land Harambee tree-planting initiative. This soon began a widespread tree-planting strategy in which over a thousand seedlings were planted in long rows to form green belts of trees, and thus marking the very beginning of the Green Belt Movement.
"These "belts" had the advantages of providing shade and windbreaks, facilitating soil conservation, improving the aesthetic beauty of the landscape and providing habitats for birds and small animals. During these local tree-planting ceremonies, community members usually turned out in large numbers. To conceptualise this fast-paced activity of creating belts of trees to adorn the naked land, the name Green Belt Movement was used."
From 1977–1988, the movement steers clear of traditional political arenas seeking to transform the social ground through reforestation and education. During the second phase, 1989–1994, the Green Belt Movement maintains these non-confrontational goals, while Wangari Maathai openly challenges the political arena. Throughout the Green Belt Movement, the organizers have been conscientious in framing their beliefs in a non-violent way. As a result, consensus, and not conflict or disruption among environmental issues has been the catalyst for major change in the social and political arena.
During the 1970s, there was a restricted political opportunity structure within Kenya because the government at the time was very politically repressive. The framing of the Green Belt Movement as a non threatening environmental conservation effort allowed this organization to make an impact during a time that many other forms of activism were seen as threats to the government. However, by encouraging women to question their place and challenge social and political institutions that keep women compliant the Green Belt Movement was eventually challenged by the government. In the late 1980s the Green Belt Movement was being harassed at the grassroots level within communities and at the central office. For example, the Green Belt Movement was evicted from their government-owned office they had worked in for 10 years. The Green Belt Movement now highlights the focus on direct social and economic transformation of communities to ensure they are not identified as having a political agenda. By highlighting the lack of direct threat, this organization is able to function without alarming the decision-making elite who currently benefit from the inequities in Kenya.
Political Context of Women Involved
“African women in general need to know that it's ok for them to be the way they are to see the way they are as a strength, and to be liberated from fear and from silence.” - Wangari Maathai
A depth of activism can be seen from the Green Belt Movement when evaluated through the lens of Black feminism. Black feminism addressed the realities of intersectionality related to identity and the multiple forms of oppression, Black women specifically, experience. By making women in Kenya the key stakeholder for this organization, agency is given back. Lived experiences impacting activism are central to effectively organizing a community. Organized seminars, which women from various rural Kenyan communities discussed their experiences of environmental degradation, were used to create solutions from subjugated knowledge to resist marginalization and cultural knowledge about their communities. Two relevant examples of ways women are prevented from obtaining equal capital are by the social and political restrictions in land ownership for women and being prevented from joining decision-making meetings. This organization functions to mitigate oppressive practices by ending land grabbing, deforestation and corruption. This network of 4,000 community groups in Kenya, who volunteer to protect their natural environment, practice day to day liberation, which is a key aspects of Black feminism work. In addition, the Green Belt Movement is able to fight against the normative ideology related to ability and education. Using the phrase “you do not need people with diplomas to plant trees” provides a counter narrative to highlight the multiple types of knowledge and wide range of knowledge accumulation.
- 1980s: Establishment of over 600 tree nurseries achieved (2,500 – 3,000 women assisting)
- 1980s: Establishment of approximately 2,000 public green belts carrying 1,000 tree seedlings on each green belt
- mid-1980s: Pan-African Green Belt Network developed (since adopted in Tanzania, Uganda, Lesotho, Malawi, Zimbabwe etc.)
- 1988: Struggle against construction of Africa's tallest skyscraper in Uhuru Park Nairobi (see "Activism Against the Odds" below)
- 2008: Support of the Billion Tree Campaign
The 2014 Green Belt Movement Annual Report highlights program areas within the organization. The program areas are Tree Plating and Water Harvesting, Mainstream Advocacy, Climate Change, and Gender Livelihood and Advocacy. Although the Green Belt Movement advertises their work as environmental activism, this organization accomplishes much more. The methodologies of these projects are critical. Using accessible practices means that a diversity of communities can participate deeply. The easy to use method of growing and planting trees is inexpensive and does not require years of practice. They are able to focus on holistic sustainability, which includes economic wellbeing, social justice, and environmental stewardship, as a solution.
Tree Planting and Water Harvesting
The connection between the standard of living and the environmental health of a community are touched upon in this section. Trees are used by humans for firewood, building material, as sources of edible plants, and much more. Trees are important for an ecosystem because they hold soil in place, provide habitat and seeds for animals, and participate in nutrient cycles (carbon, nitrogen, etc.). Since humans benefit from productive ecosystem function, there is a vested interest in preventing pollution, and deforestation. For example, community members from Upper Tana have been trained and will now be monitoring water quality in 83 sites in the Upper Tana Watersheds. This monitoring helps to connect the community with the environment and provide a measurable way hold ecosystem health accountable. The Green Belt Movement functions to support the health of ecosystems because of the link to social wellbeing.
The goal of this project is to mobilize public support and scale up advocacy work, which is identified as environmental conservation and protection of public spaces, political accountability and expansion of democratic space.
By highlighting this topic, the Green Belt Movement is being proactive during a time that many organizations plan to be reactive. Climate change is seen as a huge, untouchable problem and as a result not much action is being taken to mitigate impact. This organization is again showing the ability to provide agency through direct action. Rather than waiting for climate change to negatively impact women who live in rural Kenya, they are challenged to take steps to reduce green house gas emissions and provide carbon sinks from trees.
Gender Livelihood and Advocacy
The Green Belt Movement has continued to involve women as the discussion makers and given them leadership over their own circumstances. This model uses education as a powerful tool to lead to change. Women are given the knowledge and agency to build a network, take direct action and stand up against the face of oppression.
In 1989 the Movement took on the powerful business associates of President Daniel arap Moi. A sustained, and often lonely protest, against the construction of a 60-story business complex in the heart of Uhuru Park in Nairobi was launched and won.
In 1991 a similar protest was launched that saved Jeevanjee Gardens from the fate of being turned into a multi-story parking lot.
In 1998, the Movement led a crusade against the illegal allocation of parts of the 2,000 acre (8 km²) Karura Forest, a vital water catchment area in the outskirts of Nairobi. The struggle was finally won in 2003 when leaders of the newly elected NARC government affirmed their commitment to the forest by planting trees in the area.
This activism has come at a high cost to both Maathai in person and to the Movement. The Kenyan government closed Greenbelt offices, has twice jailed Maathai and she was subject in 1992 to a severe beating by police while leading a peaceful protest against the imprisonment of several environmental and political activists. Whilst these have served as impediments to the Greenbelt Movement, they have not stifled it and it continues as a world-renowned and respected Movement.
In 2007, the Green Belt Movement endorsed the Forests Now Declaration, calling for new market based mechanisms to protect tropical forests.
In the early 21st century, the Movement is now vibrant and has succeeded in achieving many of the goals it set out to meet. Environmental protection has been achieved through tree planting, including soil conservation, sustainable management of the local environment and economy and the protection and boosting of local livelihoods. In addition to helping local women to generate their own incomes through such ventures as seed sales, the Movement has succeeded in educating thousands of low-income women about forestry and has created about 3,000 part-time jobs. The movement also aims to spreading its roots to all the countries in the world.
- The Green Belt Movement, Wangari Maathai, 2006
- The Green Belt Movement, Wangari Maathai, 2006
- The Green Belt Movement, Wangari Maathai, 2006
- The Green Belt Movement, Wangari Maathai, 2006
- Michaelson, M. Wangari Maathai and Kenya's Green Belt Movement: Exploring the Evolution and Potentialities of Consensus Movement Mobilization, 1994