Establishing Roots: Wangari Maathai


By Emily Main

Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her dedication to environmental preservation both in her native Kenya and around the world. Starting in 1976, her grass-roots efforts to plant trees and end deforestation have grown to larger issues such as democracy and human rights and have garnered her both international acclaim and imprisonment and political suppression from Kenyan dictators.

I spoke with Wangari just before a new documentary about her, “Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai,” was screened before a sold-out crowd at our “National Geographic Live!” speaker series.

Was there one particular event that triggered your inner environmental activist?

I guess you could describe it as gradual. I was involved in the preparation of a UN meeting that was being convened in Mexico City in 1975. In the course of that preparation, I interacted with women from the rural areas of Kenya, and we were asking ourselves, as Kenyan women, what is our agenda? What are the issues we’re concerned about? I particularly was interested in what women in the countryside were concerned about. They needed firewood, they needed clean drinking water, needed adequate food–nutritious food–and they needed an income. Those that were the most vocal came from the same areas where I had grown up. During my childhood there weren’t these problems, and what was happening was because of a lot of deforestation and clear-cutting to make way for cash crops like coffee and tea, which exposed the soil to erosion and led to leaching of [agricultural] chemicals into the water.

So why not go after the agriculture companies that were behind the clear-cutting and the chemicals in the water supply?

I guess I could have done that. It’s partly my way of thinking. When I see a problem, I look at how you yourself can solve the problem. I don’t immediately think, “Go to the source.” I think, “What can I do right here and now?” What we could do was to plant trees. We have the land, and trees are easy to plant. These women would have firewood and would be able to protect soil, and trees grow fast enough that women could use them as a source of income [by selling seedlings or the fruit that they produce].

That makes sense.

As I said, I was responding to women in the countryside. And trees provided a very simplistic way to address their needs. Over time, it became good symbol of the environment, a symbol of resources–especially natural resources–and a symbol of promoting understanding and peace. Plus, a tree is a very simple thing. Everybody understands a tree–just dig a hole, and water the tree and protect it from its enemies. Everybody can feel empowered.

So much of your work has focused on getting women involved. Why?

When cash crops were introduced in Kenya, they became “man” crops. It was the men who were making money, but women were doing all the work. There was also poor guidance of the farmers, who were allocating lots of land for cash crops without leaving land on which they could grow food. So women didn’t have any space to grow food, and that led to an almost artificial shortage of food since you now have to buy food rather than grow it. Once I began to understand the linkage between cash crops being brought in and the infrastructure, it became clear that women were becoming marginalized in areas where they once had dominance.

You’ve said that ecological crises are among the root causes of war. Could you expand on that?

Wherever we are in the world, we are dealing with resources that are finite. Everywhere in world, there have been more people than there are resources, and so the competition to access these resources and to share these resources is usually the cause of conflict.

In Kenya, land and water are not available. There are a few people who are leaders who have managed to acquire huge tracts of land, but there are huge numbers of people who have no land, which is a big problem in a country where people normally grow the food they eat.

The answer may seem obvious, but if you could ask everyone to do just one thing, what would it be?

Planting a tree is still a wonderful way to address the issue of the environment. I was very surprised recently when I heard from scientists that 20 percent of greenhouse gases are coming from deforestation and degraded forests. That amount is greater than all the greenhouse gases being emitted by transport sector. While not all of us are driving or flying or burning coal or burning gas, and while not all of us can stop doing those things, there is something practical that we can do. And that is plant a tree and protect a tree that is standing.

But I think that there are many other things that people can do. Think about the 3 R’s, “reduce, reuse, recycle.” The Japanese have a concept known as “mottainai,” and it means do not waste resources. Be grateful, be respectful.

Learn more about Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement she established at

Human Journey