The Kenyan activist, Wangari Maathai, is dead at 71. With her passing we have lost one of our era’s great environmental visionaries. Maathai came from an impoverished, rural background; it was her belief in the environmentalism of the poor that propelled her life’s work, as founder and exemplar of the Green Belt Movement.
The Green Belt Movement had modest beginnings. On Earth Day in 1977, Maathai and a small cohort of the likeminded women planted seven trees to commemorate Kenyan women who had been environmental activists. By the time Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, the movement had created 6,000 local tree nurseries, employed 100,000 women, and planted some thirty million trees in Keny and beyond. The movement’s achievements have been material–providing employment while helping anchor soil, generate shade and firewood, and replenish watersheds. But their achievements have also been richly symbolic, by inspiring other reforestation movements across the globe. Under Maathai’s leadership, the Green Belt Movement embodied the conviction that environmentalism from below can become a powerful engine for alleviating poverty in the global South.
Maathai alighted on the idea of tree planting as the movement’s core activity, one that over time would achieve a brilliant symbolic economy, becoming an iconic act of civil disobedience as the women’s struggle against desertification segued into a struggle against illicit deforestation perpetrated by President arap Moi’s draconian regime. Neither desertification nor deforestation posed a sudden threat, but both were persistently and pervasively injurious to Kenya’s long-term human and environmental prospects. The symbolic focus of mass tree plantings helped foster a broad alliance around issues of sustainable security.
From the perspective of rural Kenyan women whose livelihood is threatened by desertification’s slow march what does it mean to be secure long term? As Maathai noted:
during the rainy season, thousands of tons of topsoil are eroded from Kenya’s countryside by rivers and washed into the ocean and lakes. Additionally, soil is lost through wind erosion in areas where the land is devoid of vegetative cover. Losing topsoil should be considered analogous to losing territory to an invading enemy. And indeed, if any country were so threatened, it would mobilize all available resources, including a heavily armed military, to protect the priceless land. Unfortunately, the loss of soil through these elements has yet to be perceived with such urgency.
What is productive about Maathai’s wording here is her insistence that threats to national territorial integrity–that most deep-seated rationale for war—be expanded to include threats to the nation’s integrity from environmental assaults.
The choice of tree planting as the Green Belt Movement’s defining act proved politically astute. Here was a simple, pragmatic, yet powerfully figurative act that connected with many women’s quotidian lives as tillers of the soil. Desertification and deforestation are corrosive, compound threats that damage vital watersheds, exacerbate the silting and dessication of rivers, erode topsoil, engender firewood and food shortages, and ultimately contribute to malnutrition. Maathai and her allies succeeded in using these compound threats to forge a compound alliance among authoritarianism’s discounted casualties, especially marginalized women, citizens whose environmental concerns were indissociable from their concerns over food security and political accountability.
At political flashpoints during the 1980s and 1990s, these convergent concerns made the Green Belt Movement a powerful player in a broad-based civil rights coalition that gave thousands of Kenyans a revived sense of civic agency and national possibility. The movement created fissures within the state’s authoritarian structures, as a coalition of the marginalized pushed back against Arap Moi’s neo-liberal culture of impunity.
The theatre of the tree afforded the Green Belt Movement a rich symbolic vocabulary that helped extend its civic reach. Maathai recast the simple gesture of digging a hole and putting a sapling in it as a way of “planting the seeds of peace.” To plant trees was metaphorically to cultivate democratic change; with a slight vegetative tweak, the gesture breathed new life into the dead metaphor of grass roots democracy. Within the campaign against one-party rule, activists established a ready symbolic connection between environmental erosion and the erosion of civil rights. At the heart of this symbolic nexus was a contest over definitions of growth: each tree planted by the Green Belt Movement stood as a tangible, biological image of steady, sustainable growth, a dramatic counter-image to the ruling elite’s kleptocratic image of “growth,” a euphemism for their high-speed piratical plunder of the nation’s coffers and finite natural resources.
Relevant here is William Finnegan’s observation that “even economic growth, which is regarded nearly universally as an overall social good, is not necessarily so. There is growth so unequal that it heightens social conflict and increases repression. There is growth so environmentally destructive that it detracts, in sum, from a community’s quality of life.” Certainly, there is something perverse about an economic order in which the unsustainable, ill-managed plunder of resources is calculated as productive growth rather than a loss of GNP.
To plant trees is to work toward cultivating change, in the fullest sense of that phrase. In an era of widening social inequity and unshared growth, the replenished forest can offer an egalitarian, participatory image of growth–growth as sustainable over the long haul. The Moi regime vilified Maathai as an enemy of growth, development, and progress, all languages the ruling cabal had used to mask its high speed plunder. Saplings in hand, the Green Belt Movement returned the blighted trope of growth to its vital, biological roots.
To plant a tree is an act of intergenerational optimism, a selfless act at once practical and utopian, an investment in a communal future the planter will not see; to plant a tree is to offer shade to unborn strangers. To act in this manner is to secede ethically from Kenya’s top down culture of ruthless short-term self-interest. (Kenyan intellectuals used to quip that under arap Moi “L’etat c’est Moi.”). A social movement devoted to tree planting, in addition to regenerating embattled forests, thus also helped regenerate an endangered vision of civic time. Against the backdrop of Kenya’s winner-takes-all-and-takes-it-now kleptocracy, the movement affirmed a radically subversive ethic—an ethic of selflessness—allied to an equally subversive time frame, the long duree of patient growth for sustainable collective gain.
Kenya’s Green Belt Movement protested deforestation in ways that deviated from the environmental civil disobedience strategies typical of the global North (sit ins, tree hugging, or chaining one’s self to a tree). For the Kenyan protestors, active reforestation became the primary symbolic vehicle for their civil disobedience. Under an undemocratic dispensation, the threatened forest can be converted into a particularly dramatic theatre for reviving civic agency because it throws into relief incompatible visions of public land. To Kenya’s authoritarian president, the forest was state-owned, and because he and his cronies treated the nation as identical to the state, he felt at license to fell national forests and sell off the nation’s public land. To the activists, by contrast, the forest was not a private presidential fiefdom, but commonage, the indivisible property of the people. The regime’s contemptuous looting of Karura Forest—a vital green lung outside Nairobi—was thus read as symptomatic of a wider contempt for the rights of the poor.
Maathai made many enemies: she was vilified, beaten, and imprisoned for her convictions. She became the first woman in East or Central Africa to receive a doctorate in any scientific field—and was treated by the Kenyan elite as an overreacher who needed to be brought down. One Kenyan cabinet minister railed against Maathai as “an ignorant and ill-tempered puppet of foreign masters.” Another criticized her for “not being enough of an African woman,” of being “a white woman in black skin.” A third portrayed her as a “madwoman” and threatened to “circumcise” her if she ever set foot in his district.
As a highly educated female scientist, an advocate of women’s rights, and a proponent of environmentalism for the poor, Maathai was vulnerable on multiple fronts. President Moi (who imprisoned Maathai several times) chastised her for being “disobedient”; if she were “a proper woman in the African tradition–[she] should respect men and be quiet.” But she had no intention of being silenced and ultimately the broad-based movement that she led contributed to Moi’s downfall.
If Maathai’s Kenyan opponents sought to discredit her as an enemy of national development, she also faced, when awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, a different style of criticism from abroad. Carl I. Hagen, leader of Norway’s Progress Party, typified this line of aggressive disbelief: “It’s odd,” Hagen observed “that the [Nobel] committee has completely overlooked the unrest that the world is living with daily, and given the prize to an environmental activist.” The implications of Hagen’s position were clear: that amidst the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the wider “war on terror,” to honor an environmentalist for planting trees was to trivialize conflict resolution and to turn one’s back on the most urgent issues of the hour.
However, Maathai repeatedly recast the question of urgency in a different time frame, one that challenged the dominant associations of two of the early twenty-first century’s most explosive words: “preemptive” and “terror.” The Green Belt Movement focused not on conventional ex post facto conflict resolution but on conflict preemption through nonmilitary means. As Maathai insisted, “many wars are fought over natural resources. In managing our resources and in sustainable development we plant the seeds of peace.”
This approach has rhetorical, strategic, and legislative ramifications for the “global war on terror.” For most of our planet’s people there are more immediate terrors than a terrorist attack: creeping deserts that reduce farms to sand; the incremental assaults of climate change compounded by deforestation; not knowing where tonight’s meal will come from; unsafe drinking water; having to walk five or ten miles to collect firewood to keep one’s children warm and fed. Such quotidian terrors haunt the lives of millions immiserated, abandoned, and humiliated by authoritarian rule and by a neoliberal world order. Under such circumstances, slow violence (often coupled with direct repression) can ignite tensions, creating flashpoints of desperation and explosive rage.
Perhaps to Hagen and others like him, tree planting is conflict resolution lite. But Maathai, by insisting that resource bottlenecks impact sustainable security at local, national, and global levels, and by insisting that the environmentalism of the poor is inseparable from distributive justice, did more than forge a broad political alliance against Kenyan authoritarian rule. Through her testimony and her movement’s collective example, she sought to reframe conflict resolution for an age when instant cinematic catastrophe has tended to overshadow violence that is calamitous in more insidious ways. This, then, was Wangari Maathai’s contribution to the ‘“war on terror”: building a movement committed, in her words, to “reintroducing a sense of security among ordinary people so they do not feel so marginalized and so terrorized by the state.”
Rob Nixon is the Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His most recent book is Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press, 2011).