Seeing The Future In Nature: Our Long-Term Challenge

 In Guest Blogger, Stories of People
Wangari Maathai
Photograph: Antony Njuguna/Reuters

Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven’t done a thing. You are just talking. (Wangari Maathai)

Could we plant a seed today and wait for its fruits in 30 years? Could we possibly desire to grow a tree more than investing in a house? We often adopt a long-term perspective when managing our assets, but we are less capable of doing so when Mother Nature is at stake. Environmental management, i.e. the management of “human impact on and interaction with the environment in order to preserve natural resources”, demands an ambitious vision. Wangari Maathai offers an inspirational example for a positive relationship between humans and the surrounding environment.

Born on 1 April 1940 in the foothills of Mount Kenya, Wangari Maathai grew up in Nyeri, a humble village that survived on agriculture. Spending a long time in and around the farm where her father worked, helped her appreciate the gifts from Nature. But unlike most African girls, Wangari attended school and studied English. Her brilliant academic performance provided her with the opportunity to study in the USA, where she graduated in Biological Sciences in 1966. In 1971 she received a Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi and became the first Eastern African woman to earn a doctorate degree.

Several decades of aggressive agricultural practices under colonial rule – such as massive deforestation and intensive monoculture – severely damaged both the environment and rural Kenyan communities. As a result, firewood become scarce, the streams started to dry up and food security became an issue for the community. The establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi in 1972 led to an increased interest in the environment across Africa, which encouraged Wangari Maathai to introduce the idea of community-based tree planting in 1976. This holistic approach to development focused on poverty reduction, women’s empowerment and environmental conservation through tree planting. By encouraging women to gather together to plant trees, the project restored the natural ecosystem whilst providing women with food, firewood and rainwater storage. After the initial success, eco-feminist Maathai extended the concept across Kenya by establishing a grassroots organisation: the Green Belt Movement (GBM).

The organisation works in three main strategic areas: (1) tree planting; (2) advocacy and climate change; and (3) community empowerment and education. This work has been beneficial to many people in Africa, let alone to the environment. By 2011, the GBM reported over 51 million trees planted across the African continent, with almost 4 million in 2011 alone (2011 Annual Report). Wangari Maathai’s commitment to the environment, social justice, human rights, and democracy was internationally acknowledged and she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Wangari Maathai continues to inspire others even after her death, on 25 September 2011.

In the face of great environmental degradation, it is time to listen to Wangari’s message and cherish our vital connection to nature. Putting our hands in the dirt to plant seeds may be our best bet for the future.

Mathilde Gracia, Guest Blogger


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