Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Empowering Lessons from Kenya
distributed 9/30/11 - ©2011

Once upon a time, in a poor African nation, a woman was upset about the condition of her people and her land. So one day -- it was in 1977 -- she planted seven trees.

Those seven trees in Kenya were just the start. Because of her, more than 47 million trees now have been planted across Africa. A powerful movement for democracy, peace and ecological health has taken hold. An oppressive political regime was toppled. And, along the way, she won the Nobel Peace Prize.

This remarkable woman, Wangari Maathai, the founder of the Green Belt Movement, died on Sunday. Her passing provides a fitting opportunity to highlight two important lessons that we in the "developed" parts of the world need to learn from her decades of activism.

+     +     +     +     +

One of the things that I love about Dr. Maathai is that it is so hard to fit her life's work into a tidy category. She was an environmentalist, an advocate for women's rights, an anti-poverty crusader, a political reformer, an educator, and an international peacemaker. Those were not separate causes which divided her time and attention. They were intertwined elements of her unified vision of peace and justice.

She recognized the interconnections between deforestation, poverty, the role of women and corporate land ownership. She wrote, "You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them." She understood that preserving topsoil is a national security concern: "Losing topsoil should be compared to losing territories to an invading enemy."

Here in the United States, "environmental issues" generally are consigned to an isolated realm. Far too often, ecological health is presented as conflicting with economic vitality -- and economic measurements are considered to be the only indicators of national health. In our political discourse, it is exceptionally rare to hear the integrated eco-justice awareness that was central to Maathai's life and work.

It seems odd to say it, but Ms. Maathai had the luxury of working with small-scale, impoverished farmers trying to eke out a living on depleted land. In our urban society -- where we are disconnected from our food production, and where nature is valued for recreation instead of survival -- it can be exceptionally hard to make the connections between ecology, justice, sustainability and peace. Her view of the world, though, is much more accurate and much more fruitful than the fragmented and exploitative way that our affluent society sees itself.

We definitely need to learn how ecology, economics, security, democracy and community well-being fit together and depend on each other. We will not make real progress toward a healthy and sustainable world until we claim the sort of integrated vision that shaped her work in Kenya.

+     +     +     +     +

In 2004, when she was awarded the Peace Prize, one news report said, "While Wangari is called an 'environmentalist,' her brilliance is that she understands power. Wangari and her movement have allowed women to find their voices to question everything from their husband's control of firewood to former President Moi's rule."

The "Green Belt Movement" that she founded is indeed a populist movement. It describes itself as a "prominent women's civil society organization ... Its mission is to empower communities worldwide to protect the environment and to promote good governance and cultures of peace."

That's a very different sort of mission than I hear from many parts of US environmentalism -- any maybe especially religious environmentalism. Rather than empowering communities, we talk about individual choices. We spend more energy shaping personal behaviors than we do building political coalitions. Many passionate environmentalists have the stunningly naive notion that good facts will lead businesses and governments to make rational choices. Those good-hearted people then find deep hurt and anger when those with money and power act from raw self-interest.

It is not that economic or political power is well hidden in the US. Recent Supreme Court decisions about "corporate personhood" have stirred up some conversations about how the quality of our democracy is diminished by big money, but without leading to much effective protest. Activists on many issues -- genetically modified foods, the proposed Keystone pipeline for Canadian tar and mountaintop removal coal mining, to name just a few -- are clearly aware of the powerful and entrenched interests that they are fighting, but those powers are being challenged on a case-by-case basis. We environmentalists don't seem to "understand power" in ways that build an effective movement for justice and sustainability.

Maathai said that "the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya. Citizens were mobilized to challenge widespread abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement." She recognized that it was useless to struggle for environmental improvements without having democratic, accountable government.

Our environmental movement needs to learn what Maathai embodied in the Green Belt Movement -- that we must be clear and forceful in critiquing powerful institutions, and that we must be intentional about building and utilizing our own power.

+     +     +     +     +

The entire world has been blessed by the remarkable life of Wangari Maathai. Her clear eco-justice vision and her effective organizing built powerful movements in Kenya and across Africa, and have inspired others around the world.

Those of us who live in wealthy and technological societies are prone to believe that we have all the answers, and that we need to take our way of life to the poor of the world. It requires some humility on our part to recognize the truth and wisdom embodied in the Green Belt Movement.

I pray that we will learn some much-needed lessons from Wangari Maathai. May we look to her work with poor rural women in Africa, and be empowered in our very different setting as we, too, work for sustainability and justice.

Dr. Maathai was the subject of Eco-Justice Notes seven years ago when she won the Nobel Prize.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Eco-Justice Ministries   *   400 S Williams St, Denver, CO   80209   *   Home Page:
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
To contact a representative of the agency by e-mail, please use the contact form