When her mother sent her to get water from the river by her home in Kenya, Wangari Maathai would stop to marvel at the thousands of frogs’ eggs in the tree. She thought they were beads and would try to pick them up and place them around her neck. She became fascinated with how they would later disappear, and would then find thousands of tadpoles in the river. She didn’t understand it as a child, but it sparked her lifelong passion for the environment.
Thursday night at the Special Events Center, Nobel Peace Prize winner Maathai spoke in a lecture entitled “Grassroots Environmental Activism,’ to an audience of approximately 1,000 people, predominately women.
When she grew up, Maathai noticed that the rivers she used to drink from had turned brown with silt from soil erosion. She also noticed the malnutrition in children from areas where cash crops, coffee and sugarcane had been introduced. She realized she needed to make a change.
Maathai used planting trees as a method to make such change and she incorporated Kenyan women into the process. She founded Green Belt Movement Kenya in 1977, which pays women for planting trees in Kenya and throughout Africa. The group has planted millions of trees since its inception.
Many of these women are from areas where cash crops are grown and sold. They receive very little money from the crops their families grow because their money goes to the individual men who own their land.
“When man receives money, there is something that happens to that man that women do not comprehend,” Maathai said.
After everyone else was paid, she said, sometimes the farmers would get a receipt saying they owed money.
“It’s a corruption, and I knew something had to be done about that corruption,” Maathai said.
She gathered these women and others and taught them to plant trees. They told a forester they needed 15 million trees, and the forester told them they could have all the trees they wanted.
“We want to plant a tree for every Kenyan,” Maathai told him.
But the forester ran out of trees and told Maathai that they didn’t think she was serious about the amount she needed.
“You never take women serious,” Maathai told him. “We are serious.”
She later taught the women how to produce trees from seeds, and to give them incentive, paid them 4 U.S. cents for every tree that survived.
Maathai said the Kenyan government soon became suspicious about so many women meeting and cited a law that no more than nine people can meet publicly.
“We decided that this was a law that was unjust,” Maathai said. “That was the beginning of our campaign to impact law, because we saw that the government that had created laws that had violated human rights . . . the right to gain information, the right to speak and express yourself. We introduced into the movement what we called ‘civic and environmental education.'”
The goal of “civic and environmental education” was to educate people about who managed and who was marginalized. The government continued to be an obstacle.
“We were arrested while trying to protect a forest which the government was trying to privatize to build a housing estate,” Maathai said. “A housing estate should not be put in (place of) a forest.”
They told her, “Your problem is you don’t only plant trees, you give people ideas.”
That pleased Maathai because she then knew she was reaching people. The Green Belt Movement was successful and still is today. It has since expanded and planted trees all over Africa, and has expanded into Green Belt Movement International.
Maathai expressed her concern that water is becoming scarce. Not only has the water she used to drink become unfit for drinking but the river by which she would awe over the frogs’ eggs has dried up.
She assured the audience that it’s not always the big things that count towards helping the environment, but the little things that citizens can do to make a difference.
Maathai said she is quite sure that when the Norwegian Nobel Committee gave her the 2004 Peace Prize, they thought of Africa and its struggle, and they saw a woman and saw the environment.
“For the first time they managed to see that now and in the future we are not going to be fighting over boundaries, because boundaries are coming down everywhere,” Maathai said. “We are not going to be fighting over anything that we have been fighting over for century. Now and in the future we are going to be fighting resources.”