I am woman, watch me plant trees.
If I were a Kenyan woman benefiting from the Green Belt Movement (GBM), that would be my go-to line after a handshake.
When Wangari Maathai started the Green Belt Movement, she sought to find a solution to the environmental degradation Kenya was facing.
Her answer to the woes of the people was simple: plant more trees. Much of the basic living needs of the people in Kenya such as firewood, fencing materials, drinking water, soil and animal fodder depended on trees. It made sense for them to plant trees to counter massive deforestation.
Since its inception in 1977, the movement has been widely successful despite facing initial opposition from the government. More than 40 million trees have been planted, and according to a 2009 report by GreenBeltMovement.org, the movement is fighting climate change through three different ways: mitigation through tree planting and ecosystem conservation and management; adaptation through promoting tree-planting and sustainable agriculture techniques; and promoting sustainable development through diversifying livelihoods and educating people to become more economically resilient. Who would have known planting trees could do so much.
An even bigger impact of the movement is its role in the empowerment of Kenyan women. Maathai recognized that women were mostly affected from environmental degradation and encouraged them to mobilize and provide for themselves.
Today the Movement is used as a vehicle to empower and help women become stewards of nature. It has grown internationally, extending the cause of other African countries and stating as one of its main goals to nurture leadership and entrepreneurial skills among women and girls.
Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, becoming both the first African woman recipient and the first recipient of the prize in environmental activism. She passed away Sunday at age 71, but her legend lives on as the movement keeps growing.
Her story is truly, for the lack of a better term, empowering. Here is an example of someone with a simple solution to a devastating problem that fought her way to see it materialize.
Here is also an example of the inter-relatedness of the environment with our daily lives. Coming from relatively privileged backgrounds, there seems to be a constant need for us to be reminded that humans and the environment are not separate. We are all and one with it, and every action goes a long way.
For example, the simple act of buying plastic water bottles has far-reaching effects we oftentimes refuse to acknowledge.
The people who struggled in Kenya did not need such reminders. The environmental impacts of deforestation were clear enough for them to see — it affected their livelihoods and wellbeing. Coming up with a solution to end their woes was imperative.
Kenyans are benefitting from Maathai’s efforts and government intervention has come to support the movement.
Maathai’s determination provides an illustration of how one individual can make a difference. Her drive to create better living conditions for Kenyans brought about sustainable development in the country and forced change to take place.
It shows us how important it is to hold on to our passions and pursue them for a greater tomorrow. Despite the battles we will face, Maathai's story urges us to stay strong for a cause we believe in. In our own little ways, we can all bring about change.