The Green Belt Movement

2 min read
02 Apr

Let’s travel to Africa and do a little bit of time travelling too!

Our story starts in Kenya and the year is 1976. Many women who live in the countryside are very poor and very unhappy. 

They don’t have any water piped straight into their houses so they have to walk to their nearest stream or river to get water. The streams are drying up, so they have to walk even further to get water. This takes more time. Without water, they can not grow their own food. Even animals that they hunted for have moved away. Them and their family are often hungry. Forests in Kenya are getting chopped down, to become land for agriculture - for farmers to grow grain and look after animals. Without trees close by, the women have to walk even further to collect wood to make a fire for cooking and for building fences. 

At the National Council of Women Kenya, Wangari Maathai hears about how everyday life is getting even harder for these women who are poor. Wangari studied biology. In fact she was the first woman from East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate at university. She also became the first woman in Kenya to become a professor.

Her suggestion to these women is simple. Work together to grow seedlings and plant trees. How does this work?

The top soil is rich with nutrients for growing food and plants. With trees protecting them, it won’t be easily blown away by wind, and washed away by rain, so trees help to hold onto the soil. Trees are good at storing rainwater, absorbing water with their leaves and roots. Trees can provide food, from their fruits and also provide shade for growing other food.  Trees can provide firewood for cooking and materials for building.

Planting trees solve many of these women’s problems with getting water, food and fuel. Planting rows and rows of trees together will form a belt to protect from water and wind washing away the valuable topsoil. The women start to grow a number of different fruits and vegetables for themselves to eat and to sell in markets. Now they are earning some money too. They cook and bake, and sell these too. Now they are not as poor as they were.

This idea of planting trees worked so well, that in 1977, it became the ‘Green Belt Movement’. Women all around Kenya start to work together in groups to collect seeds from trees, nurturing them into seedlings and then planting them on their farms, school and churches.

This  tree planting idea spread even further to other African countries. In 1986, this became the Pan-African Green Belt Network with 15 countries planting lots of trees, including Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Lesotho. Forty three years since the Green Belt Movement started, more than 51 million trees are planted in Kenya alone.

To recognise Professor Wangari’s work in this and her other work in democracy and peace, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 - the first African woman to get this prestigious award.

This story shows that even a simple idea can make a big difference. Planting trees solved the problems of the poor women living in the countryside. It really improved their life quality and helped to improve the environment too.

Now, it’s your turn!

Do you have an example of a simple idea that made a big difference? Is this something you have learnt at school, something you have experienced yourself, or even you have solved  yourself? 

Write or make a poster to illustrate this. 

  1. What is the problem? 

  2. What is the idea? 

  3. How does it work? 

  4. What difference does it make?

Tomorrow I’ll be back with another story of how even one person can inspire many to make a change.

Further reading:

Green Belt Movement:

Wangari Maathai:

Wangari Maathai in comic strip:

Nobel Peace Prize:

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