Washington — When the yellow tide of the desert began to invade her life, Wangari Maathai did something about it. She founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, a broad-based community tree-planting campaign, when she planted seven symbolic trees 10 years ago. Now, 2 million trees later, Mrs. Maathai's Green Belt Movement has leafed out to include such major environmental concerns as environmental protection, land use, and rural development. The enemy, however, is still the desert that has threatened her country for so many years.
Maathai, a biologist, talks about how she first ``observed these processes of desertification happening in our backyard. I noticed springs that I knew as a child, drying up, and I saw water levels going down . . . and I could see there was no longer firewood.''
So she decided to do something about the environment. It wasn't easy. She tried going it alone, but that seedling of greening Kenya failed. Then, as an executive committee member of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK), she suggested that they begin a program of community tree-planting to improve human settlements and ward off the desertification that was threatening their environment.
The project was called ``Save the Land Harambee'' since Harambee is a local word for ``Let's all pull together.'' Later on, she says ``We called it the `Green Belt' mostly because we wanted to emphasize the concept of green vegetation. We also wanted to encourage people to plant trees around their compounds. We wanted to also emphasize that we were trying to dress up the earth with green. . . .
``And we wanted to emphasize that by cutting trees, removing vegetation, having this soil erosion, we were literally stripping the earth of its color. And these are images that the people can visualize very nicely, because we are working with people who cannot read or write. So you have to impress on them imagery.'' At the beginning of Harambee, a core group of five NCWK women including her spearheaded it, developed the movement. (Maathai has been NCWK president for the past seven years.)
``It evolved gradually from a simple idea of planting trees with the people of Nairobi to now a national program, which focuses on many other developmental issues that have to do with the environment but used the tree as a focal point and a very important element in the environment,'' she explains. ``And so although we say we are planting trees, we are constantly drawing the attention of our decisionmakers and the people who matter to the fact that . . . if we do not take care of the soil, if we do not take care of the environment, we will die.''
Maathai and her Green Belt Movement recently received a bronze medal for protection of the environment, which was awarded by the Better World Society at its first annual awards dinner in New York last month. In awarding the medal, the society cited the ``Six hundred and seventy community tree nurseries, over 1,000 public green belts managed by schools and pupils, and over 1,500 private green belts managed by individual farmers, while stimulating rural employment and community decisionmaking on environmental matters.''
The Better World Society (BWS) is an international nonprofit organization that focuses on global issues related to sustaining human and other life on earth. At the helm of the BWS is cable broadcasting baron Ted Turner, its president; one of the society's goals is to attract international audiences to TV programs about issues affecting the peoples of the world.
Matthai and her Green Belt Movement will be turning up on one of the society's forthcoming TV documentaries, ``Reversing Africa's Decline.'' It deals with what BWS executive director Thomas Belford calls ``the systemic issues, desertification, deforestation, soil erosion, population pressures, etc. Part of the program will be an effort to illustrate success stories. We felt she had a replicable model for many nations in Africa facing problems of deforestation.'' (At the time of our interview, the day after receiving the award, Maathai said BWS had not told her about the documentary.)
When Maathai appears on the tube, viewers will see a handsome woman in long, intricate, corn-row braids, who might pass for a college student. The day of our interview she wore a long blue jacket, ankle-length African print skirt, white blouse, and blue sandals. She sat in a leather armchair in a borrowed office at the Organization of American States building talking about the need to save the environment from further ``degradation.'' ``The worst thing that can happen, of course, is what happened in Ethiopia. There are many places in Africa that are on the verge of that. I often use the Bible here because our people are very Christian . . . about 75 percent of our people are Christians. And I quite often appeal to them on the Christian teaching tradition: I say . . . the world was given to us by God, He created it perfect, He gave it to us, and asked us in Genesis to take care of it, to tend it. What have we done? We have plundered it. . . .''
Mrs. Maathai and her movement encourage Kenyans to plant indigenous trees like mugumo, the wild fig tree, acacia, and mukindusi, a member of the croton family, rather than exotic trees like eucalyptus and evergreens. Her Green Belt Movement, with its annual budget of 2 million shillings (about US $150,000) operates out of small offices provided by the government in Nairobi. It is a small operation that has only 10 full-time employees but has involved over 15,000 small-scale farmers, many of them women, planting trees on their plots and a half million school children planting them on school grounds.