Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement

Grade Level: 
7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Environmental Stewardship
Nobel Peace Prize
Nonprofit Organization
Wangari Maathai was a visionary environmental steward and the founder of the non-profit tree-planting campaign called the Green Belt Movement. She was the first female scholar from East and Central Africa with a doctorate. She and GBM were the recipients of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Professor Wangari in her effort to meet the basic needs of rural Kenyan women showed how preserving and conserving the environment through planting trees could result in a valuable future for themselves, their children and families.

Written by Uzma Mirza

Biographical Highlights

Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) - a visionary environmental steward, a scholar, parliamentarian, scientist and the founder of the non-profit, non-governmental grassroots tree-planting campaign called the Green Belt Movement (GBM). She was the first female scholar from East and Central Africa with a doctorate. She and GBM were the recipients of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Professor Wangari, in her effort to meet the basic needs of rural Kenyan women, showed how preserving and conserving the environment through planting trees could result in a valuable future for themselves, their children and families. Planting trees was a fundamental aspect of her work in order to foster peace, human rights, environmental sustainability, and women’s empowerment. Through, planting trees she safeguarded and revitalized the lungs of our planet. The Congo Basin Rain Forest in Kenya is the second lung of the planet after the Amazon Rain Forest, because of the volume of carbon dioxide it absorbs and oxygen it exhales. (Maathai, 2010)

She spent her life furthering the cause of women in Africa, advocating our interconnectedness with conservation and social development through tree planting. On the global platform, Maathai advocated reducing deforestation and carbon emissions affecting our global climate. Dr. Maathai authored four books: The Green Belt Movement, Unbowed: A Memoir, The Challenge for Africa and Replenishing the Earth. Dr. Maathai, through her humanitarian labor is a luminary for her nation and also for all of Africa, the environment, and women as a whole. She left a legacy that will forevermore serve as an action of empowerment for women in Africa. She is considered the mother of environmentalism, just as Nelson Mandela is the father of human rights in Africa. (Maathai, 2006a and 2010)


The Green Belt Movement (GBM) is a non-profit, non-governmental grassroots tree-planting campaign, which began as a community-based conservation venture through the simple act of planting trees. It was established in 1977 and based in post-colonial Kenya, Africa. It began under the umbrella of the National Council of Women of Kenya. Its mission: “We strive for better environmental management, community empowerment, and livelihood improvement using tree-planting as an entry point.” Its vision: “A values- driven society of people who consciously work for continued improvement of their livelihoods and a greener, cleaner world.” (Green Belt Movement) It advocates sustainable development, women’s empowerment, and democracy in Kenya, Africa. The Green Belt Movement, which was formally known as Envirocare; and the tree-planting campaign was called "Save the Land Harambee" (Maathai, 2010)

GBM started with her efforts as a small tree nursery in her backyard of planting belts (region, bands, areas) of trees that evolved into the grassroots tree-planting organization. It began as a response to resist environmental degradation and political oppression, empowering women to evoke political and a social consciousness towards democracy and environmental justice. In fact GBM became the planting of ideas for change through action. Under Maathai’s leadership and guidelines the GBM planted over 40 million trees. This initiative was aimed at fixing the damage caused by deforestation that threatened the subsistence farming practices of the local agricultural population. It consists of women working to reduce the destructive social and environmental effects of deforestation and desertification; as a result it empowered woman and advocated women’s rights. The aim of the campaign was to encourage women to plant trees in their local environments and to think ecologically - the result is a global campaign for women’s rights, human rights, democracy and environmental stewardship. (The Green Belt Movement) This organization has partnered with many organizations, corporations and individuals for the past thirty years. (Green Belt Movement/Partners) Eventually, an international chapter was established to work outside the continent. In 1986, GBM set in motion the Pan African Green Belt Network, which took GBM to other nations in Africa.

Since 1977, over 51 million trees have been planted. Over 30,000 women have been trained in forestry, bee maintenance, food processing, and various trades that help people earn a wage while preserving their natural lands and resources. Today communities in Kenya are organized to prevent further environmental damage and restore that which was destroyed. In addition, GBM works with over 4,000 communities in rural Kenya to engage them in operating tree nurseries and planting trees to safeguard the environment and improve people’s lives. Trees are planted in deteriorated forest spaces, private and public spaces, sites of cultural importance and protected resources. (GreenBeltMovement)

Historic Roots

Wangari Muta Maathai was born on April 1, 1940, in Nyeri, Kenya, Africa, and was raised in the traditional indigenous Kikuyu community value system deeply rooted in the idea of gratitude, preservation and conservation of the natural world in concert with Christian values. In parallel, she was deeply influenced by two key values found in the Japanese and Jewish traditions: Mottainai (“do not waste”), a Japanese term which applies to objects, resources and time, that means gratitude for the blessing of what has been given to us by God and the responsibility of using resources wisely. The second is the ancient Jewish idea to “repair the world” (tikkun olam), which is fueled by a sense of justice. (Maathai, 2010) These terms informed her core beliefs and values of the Green Belt Movement. Professor Maathai said that spiritual values are the key to self- empowerment and conservation. The four core values are Love for the environment, gratitude and respect for the earth’s resources, self-empowerment and self-betterment and the spirit of service and volunteerism. These factors were the driving force, which mobilized the Green Belt Movement. (Maathai, 2010)

She did not start school until she was eight years old. She went to Itithe Primary School. Being an exceptional student, four years later she was accepted at St. Cecilia’s School, where she remained until 1955. The following year she was selected to attend Loreto Girls’ School, in Lumuru, Kenya, and graduated four years later where she won a scholarship to Mount St. Scholastica College, Atchison, Kansas earned a bachelor’s degree in 1964. Two year’s later she completed her master’s at the University of Pittsburgh. She pursued doctoral studies in Germany and Nairobi obtaining a PhD in veterinary anatomy in 1971. She became chair of the department and an associate professor at the University of Nairobi in 1976, becoming the first woman to chair a university department and an associate professor, and the first female scholar from East and Central Africa with a doctorate.

She was a member of the National Council of Women of Kenya from 1976 to 1987 and its chairman from 1981 to 1987. In 1976 she introduced the idea of community-based tree planting. She continued to develop this idea that eventually became known as the Green Belt Movement (GBM). Professor Maathai was elected to the parliament of Kenya in 2002 representing the Tetu constituency until 2007, in the Nyeri district. She served as Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources in Kenya’s ninth parliament. In 1998, while in parliament, she championed for nullifying the debts of poverty stricken African nations. Also, she campaigned to make land grabbing of public lands and re- allocation of forestland illegal. (Green Belt Movement)

Professor Maathai addressed the United Nations on several occasions and spoke on behalf of women. In March 2005, she was elected as the first president of the African Union’s Economic, Social and Cultural Council. She campaigned to reduce, reuse, and recycle for many years, and added the fourth R of repair. Dr. Maathai devoted her life to advocate environmental, economic and social development in Kenya and Africa and was a tenacious and determined exponent for peace and sustainable living environments in Africa. (Wangari Maathai, 2006a and 2010) Dr. Maathai and the Green Belt Movement have received numerous awards most notably she was the recipient of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. (Noble Peace Prize) Other Awards, Honorary degrees, personal achievements, speeches and further biography can be found at GBM. (The Green Belt Movement/Biography)


Dr. Wangari Maathai and the GBM are an example of the beneficial force for change as a public good. The power of one person can affect change by addressing a local social need in a society, which can evolve into global action. What makes Maathai’s movement a marvel in both idea and action is the fact that she galvanized African women in giving, affecting and contributing to sustainable development, tree-planting, and empowering themselves as part of Kenya’s democracy. Through her tree planting activism she made women part of the democratic population of Africa. Hence, created awareness about the importance of women’s rights. The Green Belt Movement improved the lives of the Kenyan people. It brought Education, Food-security, income and democratic rights. She and her movement was an example of an idea and action that started local and evolved and has spread into a global movement. Dr. Maathai envisioned the Green Belt Movement out of her care for her fellow beings, compassion and concern for the future of her children, and her native land of Kenya. She hails the virtuous, simple women who engaged and contributed in the movement as "foresters without diplomas." (Maathai, 2006b, 28,29)

Through the planting of trees Dr. Maathai had the foresight to see that social, political and economic issues were intertwined with environmental issues. Her work shows that tree planting is more than trees; it is about planting ideas through virtuous action that will make change. Dr. Wangari’s action is the Green Belt Movement. She said, “to heal the wounds inflicted on communities…to rediscover their authentic voice and speak on behalf of their rights (human, environmental, civic, and political)…to expand democratic space in which ordinary citizen’s could make decisions on their behalf to benefit themselves, their community, their country, and the environment that sustains them.” (Maathai, 2010, 14)

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

  • Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace & Environmental Studies (2010 -present) In partnership with the University of Nairobi established the Wangari Maathai Institute to provide training in sustainable management, education and community development. A place promoting concepts, rooted in principles by Dr. Maathai and the GBM. (
  • Wangari Maathai Foundation (2015) Established to support projects that advocate sustainable development, democracy, environmental conservation, and peace and that further the vision of Dr. Maathai, in relation to value, vision and comprehension of interconnectedness. (
  • The Wangari Muta House (WMM) – (2017- ) – A legacy project. “a sanctuary for reflection and renewal; a final home for her ashes; and a place of learning, growth, and action.” (

Key Related Ideas

  • Environmentalism is a social movement for the preservation and conservation of the environment. It addresses the damage and pollution human actions have incurred on the natural world followed by actions to find preventive solutions. Nonprofits play a significant role in alleviating the social need for the environment. (
  • The Clinton Global Initiative – In 2010 the Clinton Initiative announced support for the Wangari Maathai Institute. Work advocating sustainable development, democracy and peace. (The Clinton Global Initiative)
  • World Wildlife Fund of the United States was founded in 1961. It is the largest environmental group with worldwide partners. (

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Rachel Carson (1907-1964) - was one of the first environmental activists in the US. She is a scientist and prolific writer. Her most important work was Silent Spring, where she exposed the harmful effects of DDT and other pesticides on the environment and people. (
  • Al Gore (1948- ) – In his book Earth in Balance, wrote about the important work that affects climate change by the Green Belt Movement and Wangari Maathai. (Forbes 2007)
  • Amy Goodman, Democracy Now – Interviewed Dr. Maathai of her environmental activism, woman’s and human rights, and advocating democracy in Africa where the tree became the struggle for the democratic struggle in Kenya.
  • Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (2004) designated Dr. Wangari Maathai as the United Nations Messenger of Peace with a focus on the environment and climate change, during the 2009 UN climate change conference in Copenhagen. (United Nations Messenger of Peace)

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The Women’s Environment & Development Organization (WEDO) - Wangari Maathai, was a founding member of WEDO. An international organization that advocates women’s rights ( rio20/)
  • Congo Basin Forest Partnership (CBFP) (2004) – Wangari Maathai was appointed the Goodwill Ambassador of the CBFP, to advocate for the conservation, sustainable management and development of forest ecosystem initiative; and use of creative funding tools. (
  • United Nations Forum on Forests (CPF) - The collaborative Partnership on Forests to commemorate the forest initiatives advocated by Dr. Maathai globally launched the Wangari Maathai Award in 2012. ( partnership-on-forests/wangari-maathai-award/index.html)
  • UNIFEM - In 1981 the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) provided “seed money” to GBM – called the Harambee Project at the time, which allowed the establishment of thousands of tree nurseries in rural areas with millions of seedlings. The UNIFEM support assisted in mobilizing thousands of local ordinary women whom Maathai calls “foresters without diplomas.” (Maathai, 2006 119)

Reflection Question

In the words of the Nobel Committee: "She thinks globally and acts locally." Can you think of a social need in your local community needing to be addressed? How would you address this need? How might your action affect change globally?


Maathai, Wangari. The Green Belt Movement. NewYork, NY: Lantern Books, 2006a Maathai, Wangari. Replenishing the Earth. New York, NY: Doubleday, 2010 Maathai, Wangari, Unbowed: A Memoir. NewYork, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006b Nielson, Larry A. Nature’s Allies: Eight Conservationists Who Changed our World. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2017

Internet Sources

  • Aid for Africa. Green Belt Movement International international/
  • Clinton Global Initiative statements/press-release-president-barack-obama-first-lady-michelle-obama-and- bill-gates-jo.html
  • CPF Collaborative Partnerships on Forests. Wangari Maathai Forest Champion Award
  • Forbes. In Appreciation of Al Gore. cx_hwm_1022maathai.html
  • The Green Belt Movement
  • The Green Belt Movement. Biography of Wangari Maathai was the GBM
  • The Green Belt Movement. Speeches and Articles
  • The Green Belt Movement. Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace
  • The Green Belt Movement. Partners of the Green Belt Movement
  • Nobel Prize. Wangari Maathai.
  • Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace & Environmental Studies
  • Women’s Environment & Development Organization. Wangari Maathai
  • UNESCO Women in African History. Wangari Maathai
  • United Nations. United Nations Messenger of Peace


  • Planting Hope - Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement.
  • Alan, Dater and Lisa Merton. Dir. Dater and Merton. Marlboro, 7-minute Documentary Film, 2008.
  • Taking Root - The Vision of Wangari Maathai. Dir. Alan Dater and Lisa Merton. Marlboro, Documentary, 2008.


This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.