NAIROBI, Kenya — Wangari Maathai was always a first.
She was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, the first East African woman to earn a doctorate degree and possibly the first vocal activist to defend Kenya’s forests. The Green Belt Movement, which she started in 1977, planted an estimated 45 million trees around Kenya and encouraged women in particular to plant trees for both environmental and economic development.
“Wangari Maathai was a force of nature,” wrote the Director of the United Nation’s Environmental Protection program, Achim Steiner. “While others deployed their power and life force to damage, degrade and extract short term profit from the environment, she used hers to stand in their way, mobilize communities and to argue for conservation and sustainable development over destruction.”
Maathai became the patron of the United Nation’s Billion Tree Campaign launched in 2006.
Kenya is classified among the countries with low forest cover, with a dwindling 1.7% coverage, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
“Things have gone bananas,” said George Ondimu, the project director of a tree-planting enterprise, the Forest Queens Beauty project. “There is a direct correlation between trees and climate change. Kenya’s deforestation means rivers and dams have dried up, soil erosion has curtailed farming and more serious droughts and famine are on the horizon if we don’t take tree planting seriously.”
Compared to other East African countries, Kenya’s forest cover remains the starkest, even in the seemingly lush hillsides of Kenya’s Rift Valley. Bamboo trees, for instance, used to be prevalent across the region, environmental consultant Kiplogat Wilson says. But now only a few bamboo trees can be seen in the highlands.
According to the head of the Kagoech Foundation, a trust devoted to tree planting and conservation, the dearth of bamboo and other trees is largely due to poverty and ignorance.
“Kenyans still rely too much on wood for fuel and prefer clearing trees to plant. Soil erosion comes since people clear trees to plant maize and dig in the same area year after year,” said Odieng Dimba, chief executive of the Kagoech Foundation.
The worst culprits, however, may be the illegal logging companies that work in cahoots with individuals in the government to make short-term profits. The government has licensed commercial logging companies to harvest trees from both indigenous and exotic forests unsustainably, charges the chairman of the Kagoech Foundation, Micah Kigen. Some of these logging companies are making huge profits selling timber on the black market with the approval of individuals in the government, he says.
Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority recently filed a case against another government department, the Kenya Forest Service, for harvesting 20 acres of Mt. Kenya Forest despite orders to stop, Kenya’s Daily Nation reported. During the 24-year rule of Daniel Arap Moi, the forests were often given to political supporters as payment for political patronage.
Maathai was the sole outspoken critic of Moi’s extraction policies and suffered arrests, beatings and vilification because of it. The condolence messages continue to pour into Maathai’s Facebook page, more than a week after she succumbed to cancer.
Some of the messages expressed fear for Kenya’s forests now that the greatest defender of Kenya’s forests has passed away. But Maathai’s vocal activism planted seeds for trees and seeds of inspiration within many Kenyans.
“The way she campaigned for conservation in the country, it went beyond the country — it became a global effort,” Kigen said. “I took that concept of hers and brought it forward and that is how I found myself as an environmental activist.”
Forest Queens Director Ondimu shares similar sentiments. “She was the example of change we yearned for, her legacy has certainly affected us. As her followers, we will carry on with her vision to where it should have reached.”
The Kagoech Foundation and the Forest Queens Beauty Project both aim to restore Kenya’s forest cover by planting and maintaining 10 million trees in the next five years. Both organizations are also targeting youth as catalysts for this effort. The Forest Queens Beauty Project, for instance, holds an annual beauty pageant for the “Forest Queen” who acts as a tree-planting ambassador, encouraging school students and others to plant trees.
“It’s important to work with young people,” 2011 Forest Queen Martha Mukami said. “They are more energetic and not set in their ways. Through them I hope we can end years of bad environmental practice.”
So far the project, in conjunction with the government, has incorporated nearly 500 schools across the nation to take part in a tree-planting contest.
Last week, the Forest Queens Beauty Project and Kagoech Foundation had their tree-planting launch at Kapkenda Girls High School, with government officials and armies of pupils attending the event with proud principals sitting at their side.
“Once our students are enlightened about the environment,” said Headmistress Jean Ngaaywa of Tendwo Secondary School, “they will pass on their knowledge to family and friends.”
Ngaywa’s students have planted trees around the entire school compound and plan to plant many more.
“My students plant trees for the environment, but they also appreciate the value of timber. Due to deforestation, timber is very expensive these days,” said Headmistress Susan Sawe of Kaptega Secondary School. “My students know two or three trees will pay their school fees, so it pays to plant — for the country and for the self.”
Maathai may be smiling somewhere over these comments. The Nobel Prize in 2004 was not simply for environmental conservation but to prove to the world that tree planting was a form of economic and social development.
Tom Rhodes is a freelance journalist and consultant for the New York-based media watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists. Rhodes was the editor and one of the founders of South Sudan's first independent newspaper, The Juba Post.