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The Green Belt Movement: 40 Years of Impact

March 21, 2018

For Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting the powerful work of female Goldman Environmental Prize winners. This blog is a guest post by the Green Belt Movement, an organization founded by Prize winner Wangari Maathai (Kenya, 1991) that empowers communities, especially women, to protect the environment.

In Africa, as in many parts of the world, rural women deal with multiple stresses as an integral part of their daily lives. This is because they are in charge of most of the domestic and livelihood activities and most of their time is spent on tasks like looking for food, water, and collecting firewood.

Wangari Maathai planting trees Aberdare kenya
Wangari Maathai planting trees in the degraded Aberdare Forest, Kenya. Photo credit: Lisa Merton

Increased deforestation has not only meant increased desertification, but it has also meant that women have had to travel further afield in order to collect firewood. This in turn has meant less time around the home, tending to crops, and looking after their children. Responding to these challenges, Professor Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, primarily working with women in environmental conservation and community empowerment in Kenya.

Starting with seven seedlings on World Environment Day in 1977, the Movement soon began a widespread tree-planting strategy in which over a thousand seedlings were planted in long rows to form green belts of trees, thus marking the very beginning of the Green Belt Movement.

Looking back over the 40 years, the journey has by no means been easy, with efforts to repress the Green Belt Movement between 1989 and 1999. Starting in 1989, the Green Belt Movement’s advocacy efforts thwarted a 60-story development from being built in Uhuru Park, a 34-acre public green space in the heart of Nairobi. In 1992, just after the project was abandoned, Uhuru Park became the site of a hunger strike to secure the release of political prisoners, at which Professor Maathai was beaten unconscious by police. Again, in January 1999, leading a protest against the privatization of Karura Forest in Nairobi, members of the Movement were beaten bloody by private guards hired to prevent them from entering the forest.

“Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it, and make it survive, you haven’t done a thing. You’re just talking.” — Wangari Maathai

Despite these and numerous other hurdles along the way, the Green Belt Movement persevered and, to date, hundreds of thousands of women have become involved and over 5,000 nurseries have been established. More than 51 million trees have been planted—on farms, in schools and churches, along rivers, and in the countryside.

Over the years, the Green Belt Movement and its founder have received numerous accolades for the key role of environmental rehabilitation and linking sustainable development, peace, and democracy through tree planting. Professor Maathai was one of six individuals worldwide to be honored with the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1991 and, to crown it off in 2004, received the Nobel Peace Prize “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

Today, the Green Belt Movement’s work has continued to evolve, with the goal of furthering our efforts across our four thematic areas of work: tree planting and watersheds, gender livelihood and advocacy, climate change, and mainstream advocacy.

green belt movementFounded in 1977 by Professor Wangari Maathai, the Green Belt Movement (GBM) has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya. GBM works at the grassroots, national, and international levels to promote environmental conservation; to build climate resilience and empower communities, especially women and girls; to foster democratic space and sustainable livelihoods.


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