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Moving Forward Without “Mama Miti” a Daunting Task for her Followers

So far, Kenya's Political Leaders have Avoided Pledging to Continue Maathai’s Work

Her colleagues called her “Prof,” a nod to her being the first woman in East Africa to attain a PhD; rural Kenyans called her “Mama Miti,” or Mama Tree. She was a woman ahead of her time, a Kenyan who dared defy a restrictive government, a passionate voice for the preservation of the environment. Throughout the world, Wangari Maathai was known as a champion of trees.

Photo by Martin RoweWangari Maathai: 1940-2011

Mama Miti preached a straightforward ideology: trees equal life. In the 70s, when the concept of conservation was still relatively new even in the western world, she founded her Green Belt Movement, which eventually expanded beyond Kenya to become a global force currently credited with planting over 45 million trees. To Kenyans who differed—typically corrupt politicians who questioned where the profit lay—she broke it down: without forests in Kenya, there will be no rain; without rain, there will be no rivers; no rivers mean no wildlife—and no wildlife means no multi-billion-dollar tourist revenue. The equation was simple. Having trees is good for people. Not having trees is bad.

“It’s not just the drama of some treehuggers,” says Francesca de Gasparis, director of the Green Belt Movement’s Europe office. “It makes economic sense.” Derided in her homeland by the repressive Daniel arap Moi government, Maathai took her message to the rural communities of Kenya. Once 40 percent forest, Kenya now has less than 2 percent tree cover; massive swathes of woodland were cleared decades ago to make way for cash crops such as coffee and tea. Mama Miti urged people to replant indigenous trees, African breeds that facilitate the regrowth of the entire ecosystem.

To people wondering how they will feed their children today, planting trees that will feed them tomorrow is a daunting abstract. But those who listened came to appreciate the benefits. As trees grew tall once again, the rains returned. The reborn tropical forests dropped their leaves year round, creating spongy soil that trapped the rainwater and prevented floods washing away the crops.

Travel to the farmlands of Kenya today and you will see new-growth forests springing up everywhere. “The trees bring rain,” says a woman called Rose, pointing to a stand of tall blue gums growing along the edge of her farm in western Kenya. “They grow fast, so when we need to build something, we cut them.” Blue gum is not one of the indigenous breeds Maathai advocated, but its fast growth makes it an economically viable alternative to cutting what few old-growth trees remain. Maathai’s message has prompted thousands of low-income Kenyans like Rose to plant their own trees, inviting rainfall, ensuring ample construction material, and preserving forests at the same time.

“You cannot protect the environment,” Maathai said, “unless you empower people, you inform them, and you make them understand that the resources are their own resources.”

Moving forward without Prof is a daunting task for those who remain at the helm of the Green Belt Movement. Their current focus in Kenya rests on watersheds. “When you plant trees upland in the mountains, you see the streams and rivers reappear,” says de Gasparis. And, despite the Kenyan government’s history of disdaining Maathai’s message, new partnerships are emerging.

In recent years, Raila Odinga, made Prime Minister in the coalition government that was formed after the disputed election in late 2007, joined publicly with Maathai in her efforts to curb the clear-cutting of the Mau Forest, one of Kenya’s primary watersheds. The prime minister’s motives in protecting the Mau may be political, but “Prof would cooperate with anyone,” says de Gasparis, and the Green Belt Movement has always seen partnerships with the government as essential to their work. “A lot of our successes have been due to the fact that the government was willing to work with us. We must continue to work with them — it’s the only way.”

Whether the Kenyan government will continue to work with the Green Belt Movement remains to be seen. In the global outpouring of grief over Maathai’s death, the government hastily accorded her a state funeral, but the Who’s Who of Kenyan politicians that praised her achievements during the ceremony noticeably avoided pledging to continue her work of planting and protecting forests.

“People do not know how much they depend on the survival of this ecosystem,” Maathai once said. She devoted her life to changing that, tirelessly teaching rural communities the long-term benefits of re-planting the land, urging Kenyans and the world to make trees their legacy, a gift for generations to come.

Learn more about Wangari Maathai in her autobiography, Unbowed, and the excellent documentary “Taking Root.” Commemoration ceremonies are currently being planned in New York, Washington D.C., and San Francisco, and a global “I am the Hummingbird” tree-planting campaign will take place on October 28th. For more information, visit www.greenbeltmovement.org.

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