The Green Belt Movement

The Green Belt Movement (GBM) began in the early 1970s. It started out of a conversation that Wangari Maathai, then a professor at the University of Nairobi, had with rural women about what they felt were their most pressing needs. Wangari was speaking with women ahead of the first World Conference on Women to be held in Mexico in 1975. For her part, Wangari was of the new generation of educated and successful women in Kenya, and she and her colleagues were looking for equal pay, recognition within society and the workplace. She was struck by the challenge rural women were facing in fulfilling their basic needs.

This jarred with her personal experience of the rural environment where she had grown up. The rural Kenya that Wangari had known as a child was a very different place of forests, clean rivers, and healthy people - a place of abundance. Thirty years later unsustainable practices had led to the cutting down of many trees, erosion of top soil, lack of clean drinking water, and malnutrition. Rural women were trapped in a downward cycle of poverty and environmental degradation. From this conversation Wangari came up with this seemingly simple idea of “why not plant trees with the rural women?”

GBM is formally launched

Two years later the Green Belt Movement was formally launched as a project under the auspices of the National Council of Women. Many of those very same rural women who started planting trees with Wangari in the 1970s continue to be a part of the movement today. GBM started small, however the simple action of planting trees was a radical notion in those days.

Overcoming societal barriers

Women did not have rights to land and were expected to ask their husbands for permission before planting on their land. What is more, tree planting was only done by specialists- “foresters who had diplomas”. Wangari dismantled these socially constructed ideas with an ease, humour, and generosity that inspired rural women and set them on a path of empowerment, to the realisation of what they can do to improve their own lives and the environment, working together. And so the movement grew organically from simple and rewarding actions. As a volunteer network, within a few years there were thousands of women forming tree nursery groups and planting trees.

Built on strong values, with relevance and appeal

The Green Belt Movement’s approach is based on values: helping others, volunteering your time, love for the environment, honesty and integrity. This holistic approach of recognising our individual worth was particularly appealing to rural women, who are in present day still left out of decision-making that affects their lives. With Wangari Maathai as the leader of the organisation GBM started to challenge issues relating to the environment and public space: for example using of public land for private gain, land grabbing, and the rights of people to have democratic space.

Campaigning against Government

These became public democratic battles with the government in the 1980s onwards. In 1989 Wangari and GBM protested about the planned construction of a 60-storey skyscraper in Uhuru Park, Nairobi’s main public park. The building was to have a three-storey statute of President Moi in front and was funded by international donors. Wangari sent letters to Embassies asking whether the US or the UK Governments would sanction such a building being built in Central Park in New York or Hyde Park in London. The international donors withdrew their funding much to President Moi’s consternation, and ordinary people began to realise that they could stand up to his dictatorship.

Campaigning for democracy

In 1992 Wangari and GBM were targeted by the Government in their attempts to shut down and reduce the message for pro-democratic reforms. Wangari and mothers of political prisoners held a hunger strike in Uhuru Park at Freedom corner – the site where the skyscraper was to have been built. They were attacked and beaten by police. Wangari was beaten unconscious and hospitalised. Once out, she returned to join the women who sought shelter in the nearby All Saints Cathedral. They remained in the basement of Cathedral for 14 months until the political prisoners were released.

Campaigning to protect forest lands

In 1998, Karura forest lands in Nairobi was being given to private developers, destroying one of Nairobi’s two indigenous forests. Wangari and GBM led a series of protests, this time with a wide range of support: from the Universities, opposition MPs and others. In early 1999 she and others were attacked and beaten by armed men, as they tried to plant trees in the forest. The police refused to act, however a film of the attack brought international condemnation and, after further protests in August 1999, the Government finally banned allocation of public lands. So GBM became a central part of the social movement towards democracy in Kenya. In 2002 the first fair democratic elections were held.

Gaining international recognition and tackling climate change

In 2004 GBM founder Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her lifetime achievements linking “sustainable development, democracy and peace”. After 2004 GBM received a great deal of international attention and a spotlight focussed on our work. While this wave of interest in GBM grew, externally the impact of climate change became much better understood and accepted. GBM’s tree planting projects started to pilot new ways of tackling climate change through mitigation, adaptation and addressing the development issues that rural women and their families continue to face: conserving forests while creating sustainable livelihoods for rural people.

Losing Wangari Maathai

Today the Green Belt Movement works with a volunteer grassroots network of over 4,000 community groups that has planted more than 50 million trees across Kenya. GBM has shared its approach with many other community-based organisations in Africa and internationally.  The movement grew organically, according to the needs of rural women and Kenya citizens to have their rights heard, and is now facing a different challenge without our founder. Wangari Maathai died in September 2011.

Community-led empowerment persists as the challenges grow

GBM’s approach has been community-led, empowering those with little or no voice to speak up, to take action and to take better control of their lives, and it has been led by an inspirational and charismatic founder. Going forward GBM’s challenge is to continue to be a voice for environmental issues in Kenya and for Africa internationally.

Unfortunately the environmental challenges that led GBM to start its work with rural women remain and are more critical than ever. As Kenya faces the first elections in March 2013 since conflict erupted in December 2007, there is an even greater urgency to ensure representation and to hear voices of those marginalised in decision making. The threats of climate change, slaughter of elephants and rhino, and discovery of oil, minerals and gas mean a concerted and joined up effort must be made to include all stakeholders and ensure an equitable future for all. GBM’s task will not be easy without the strong voice and presence of our founder, however her legacy lives on in the thousands and thousands of women and men who she empowered to make a difference.


Useful references for further enquiry GBM’s website Award winning documentary Taking Root: the Vision of Wangari Maathai our facebook page Tribute to Wangari Maathai Wangari telling the Hummingbird story

February 2013