"It is the people who must save the environment, it is the people who must make their leaders change. We must stand up for what we believe in and we cannot be intimidated."
-Dr. Wangari Maathai
Deforestation has devastated environments across the world. In January 2020, the world went up in arms about thousands of acres of the rain forest burning (FYI they're still burning it). This phenomenon has gone hand-in-hand with industrialization and globalization over the last century. It not only destroys habitats for animal and plant species, it cripples rural human communities and threatens life on Earth as we know it. This has been the case in African countries throughout centuries of colonization.
This is the story of one woman who sought to rehabilitate one forest. Along the way, she ignited and led the fight for democracy, environmental and economic justice for her country.
The awards, accolades and accomplishments of Dr. Wangari Maathai are abundant. She has been recognized thoroughly for her hard work and dedication within her country and worldwide. She earned honorable titles such as Goodwill Ambassador and won the Nobel Peace Prize for Sustainable Development, Democracy and Peace. While serving on the National Council of Women in 1976, Dr. Maathai learned that the principal problems affecting women and children were malnutrition and a lack of firewood. Malnutrition was occurring because the Kenyan countryside had turned into cash crops like tea and coffee for exportation. This limited access to unrefined, whole food, as well. So Dr. Maathai proposed the simple yet powerful idea, "why not plant trees?"
This is how the Green Belt Movement began in 1977. Local women were empowered to collect native seeds from trees and cultivate them. For each tree that survived, they’d receive 4¢. And so the women shared their knowledge with each other and the movement grew and grew.
Defiance for the Greater Good
Dr. Maathai understood that what they were dealing with were just the symptoms of bigger problems. Exploitation and corruption needed to be addressed if the movement would be sustained. The forces reached the movement before Wangari could hope to change them. The Kenyan government began attempting to interfere with the movement and tried to intimidate the women out planting trees.
A turning point in Maathai's career came in 1989 when she spoke out against the government's plan to build a skyscraper and statue of the dictator in the only large park in Nairobi, Uhuru Park. For her protest she was ridiculed and austracized by government officials and even friends. Despite this, she succeeded. Foreign investors pulled out and the project failed. This brave act galvanized the movement for the people.
Protests for Political Prisoners
From that point on, the movement was met with oppressive hostility. Pro-democracy leaders, including Maathai, were put on assassination lists. Thousands were taken as political prisoners. After they seiged her in house for three days, she was arrested. Political leaders around the world pressured the Kenyan government to release them. When she was released, Wangari organized a hunger strike in Uhuru Park, that would last until the prisoners were released.
While at the newly named Freedom Corner, the government sent the police to violently break up the protest. People were beaten and in an act of desperation the elder women stripped their clothes in effort to make the young men take heed to their traditional values - values that demand they respect elderly women as their mothers. And if they should go forth to abuse and beat them bare, they would be cursed. Dr. Maathai was beaten so badly she was put in a coma.
Nonetheless, they persisted. They took refuge in a church nearby and occupied the park everyday for 11 months until the government finally released the prisoners.
The Fight for the ForestDr. Maathai was constantly under threat by the government. She was arrested, questioned and her house was sieged multiple times. In 1992, the dictator allowed multi-party elections in Kenya for the first time since its independence in 1963. Inter tribal conflicts ensued and Wangari organized the Green Belt Movement to educate people about personal responsibility and the importance of community in addition to the vitality of forests.
Driven by the desire to protect the forests, ten years later enough momentum had been built to elect a coalition government that advocated reforms. In 2002, Wangari was elected to parliament with 98% of the vote.
While in Parliament, she rallied the military to fulfill their full duties to protect the country, as in the very land they would shed blood for, by planting trees. The Green Belt Movement has planted over 50 million trees.
About the Design:
When Wangari Maathai received the phone call that she would be the first African woman honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, what did she do? She hung up the phone and planted an African Tulip Tree. The design is a rendering of just that. This simple yet noble act is the driving force behind the movement she led for economic justice, freedom, and environmental sustainability. It was her mission to empower people so that they, too, no matter how small, could make a difference. Even if only one seed at a time.