The Story of Wangari Maathai And Her Legacy

A fundamental lesson from tree planting and how we can contribute

A big fire breaks out in the forest. All animals run out, overwhelmed and powerless. They stand there, staring at the fire, feeling as if there was nothing they could do. A little hummingbird instead flows to the nearest stream, picks up a drop of water with its tiny beak and puts it on the fire. The hummingbird then goes back and repeats the action over and over, over and over again. The animals start mocking the hummingbird. “What do you think you can do? You’re too little, this fire is too big!” – they say, but the harder they mock, the harder the hummingbird works, remaining committed, persistent, patient. “What do you think you can do? You’re too little, this fire is too big!”. Without stopping to work for a second, the bird turns to them and says: “I am just a hummingbird. I am doing the best I can”.

Albeit simple, this story has a strong message as it reminds us of the role that we play in the face of the events that occur around us. Either we choose to be the hummingbird, or we choose to be the animals who sit and stare as the forest burns. More importantly, it reminds us that, even if minor, our contributions can still have a meaningful impact and start the process of change. It may be opposed or belittled, but improvement always begins with everyone’s individual action. This strong message of  self-empowerment and participation is maybe what best exemplifies the life and legacy of Professor Wangari Maathai, who first heard the story of the hummingbird during a trip to Japan and loved it so much that she used to recount it at the end of her every interview, lecture, and speech. From the early years of activism until the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, she proved the strength that simple individual actions have in shaping change.

Born in a rural area of Kenya in 1940, Wanagari Maathai pursued higher education in the USA, where she obtained both bachelor’s and master’s degrees before returning to her home country to become a Ph.D. laureate – the first woman in East and Central Africa to be one. She then worked both in Kenya and around the world to spread her vision of democracy, equality, and sustainability. Most notably, she addressed the General Assembly of the UN on multiple occasions and was nominated UN Messenger of Peace; in her homeland, she served in the Council of Women in the 1970s, and then as a member parliament and as an Assistant Minister for the environment and Natural Resources in the 2000s. In 2004, when the  Nobel Peace Prize committee decided to honour her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace”, she became the first African woman to ever receive the award.

The most important project that Professor Maathai nurtured was the Green Belt Movement (GBM), which she founded in 1977. At the time, the Kenyan population was suffering due to the lack of water and the drainage of streams, which created severe issues for those, especially women, who had to walk longer distances to fetch water. Professor Maathai’s idea was simple but extremely effective and with far-reaching consequences: she encouraged groups of women to plant trees and taught them how to take care of plants and the environment. The essence of her teaching can be summed up, in her own words, as follows: “If you destroy the forest, the river will stop flowing, the rains will become irregular, the crops will fail and you will die of hunger and starvation”.

What the Green Belt Movement does is indeed taking care and improving the environment in which the partaking communities dwell. More precisely, the GBM employs a watershed-based approach: a watershed is an area where water collects naturally and accumulates to then flow to the same stream, river or lake. Crucially, however, the strength and persistence of these streams depend greatly on the quantity of trees in the area of the watershed. Orchestrated by the Professor, the Movement brought women together to plant seedlings in exchange for monetary compensation, thus improving the life of the participants and of those who relied on the watershed as a source of water.

The problem of water supply is only one part of the story, however. In planting trees, the Green Belt Movement also wanted to offset deforestation, which was exacerbated by the use of wood as fuel and as construction material. Restoring the environment not only meant ensuring provision of water, but also that local communities could have energy resources readily available on their farms, while making wood extraction more sustainable at the same time.

A third front of action of the GBM is that of malnutrition and food security. Recalling the history of the Movement in an interview, Wanjira Mathai, daughter of Wangari Maathai, now Executive Director of the GBM, described how tree planting transformed the relation of the women in the Movement with the land, since they can now eat directly from the plants they have planted.

Today, about 4,000 groups of around 20 women are part of the Movement, accounting for a total of over 80,000 women and more than 100,000 participants overall. From its beginning, the Movement has planted over 51 million trees, contributing significantly to poverty reduction and environmental conservation. While still faithful to its premise, the Green Belt Movement has evolved over time and currently manages a series of new innovative projects. For example, it hopes to use the know-how of its helpers to start a second ‘green revolution’ through the planting of bamboo, a plant that is both very versatile and a more sustainable fuelwood. The idea behind this initiative is not only to create biomass, but also to provide women with opportunities for business, creating objects that will then be sold both in local and national markets. Just last year, the GBM inaugurated a community-based Bamboo Craft Center. The goal of this new project is to further reduce poverty, while safeguarding the forests of Kenya and mitigating climate change.

Professor Wangari Maathai passed away in September 2011 but her ideas remain a huge source of inspiration to those who met and worked with her, to those whose life has benefited from the Green Belt Movement, and to those who learn and have learnt from her vision. Her greatest merit was understanding that climate change and poverty could be fought simultaneously. However, as many have said, her greatest achievement was not planting trees but much rather planting ideas. Just like the story of the hummingbird, the story of Wangari Maathai teaches us that change can be obtained with little but relentless effort, even with simple actions. Being focused, faithful to the cause, and persistent: this is the key to change.

Tree planting initiatives: how to plant trees without getting off your sofa

As Ecosia simply puts it: Planting trees is easy, but it takes real skill to make sure they survive. Even if you were to go out and start planting trees, the likelihood of them surviving would be very weak without due and regular care, notwithstanding the fact that trees cannot be planted at will, especially in public soil. If all these issues are making you feel overwhelmed and powerless, like the animals in the hummingbird’s tale, you can rely on a number of reforestation initiatives that will make sure you are actually making a difference. While some require donations, others are completely free!

Make sure you check those listed below:

  • Ecosia is a free search engine just like Google but with a small, big difference: the profit generated through web searches is directed to reforestation projects around the world in the areas most in need. That’s right, just by using this browser instead of your usual one, you are planting trees! As of today, the browser counts more than 15 million users, who have helped plant more than 114 million trees in more than 9000 locations. Ecosia lets you know how many searches you have performed so that you can roughly know how many trees you have contributed to plant, given that 45 searches are needed to plant a tree, on average.

Add it to your browser now!

  • Ecosia’s shop is an online shop with many sustainable items, like clothes and bags. Just as for the browser, the revenues of the online shop go to reforestation projects. A novelty are gift trees, where you can choose to buy from 5 to 40 trees, depending on whether you wish to fight climate change, hunger or biodiversity loss.

Check it out here!

  • TreeCard is an eco-friendly, wooden debit card that uses merchant transaction fees to plant trees. The business aims at delivering 80% of its profits to reforestation projects. This is no coincidence, as Ecosia provides TreeCard with financial, commercial, and marketing support in exchange for a minority stake in the eco-friendly fintech. This product is still waiting for regulatory entities to be distributed, but you can register to get a free TreeCard in a waitlist with already 100 000 signatures.

To know more, click here.

  • Treedom is another website where you can buy a tree for yourself, a family member, or a friend. You can choose what tree you want to plant, receive a certificate, and witness its growth. Unlike Ecosia’s gift trees where you select a cause, in Tredom you have the option to choose from a variety of species, place, meanings, like positivity or health, or even buy a tree that matches your zodiac sign. Monthly subscriptions where you save up to 12 tons of CO2 a year are also available.

Their website can be accessed following this link.

  • Word Land Trust allows you to buy one acre of the Amazon rainforest for £100 and ensure it is bought by one of their local partners in Brazil, and thus protected against illegal logging or fires. These partners, who have been evaluated and visited to ensure expertise in protecting this ecosystem, apply for the Buy an Acre funding when opportunities to purchase wildlife-rich habitats arise at a cost of around £100 per acre. Every acre saved becomes part of a larger protected reserve. If you are short on cash, you can still contribute to the cause by donating almost any amount; from £25, you can also request a personalized certificate to record the land you have saved.

Head over to the WLT’s website now!

References and additional resources:

To know more about the life of Professor Wangari Maathai:

To hear the hummingbird story as told by herself:

To know more about the Green Belt Movement: