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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Part III: Soldier Planters, River-Keeping Children and Green Belt's Future

Air Date: Week of

Wangari Maathai's Green Belt Movement continues to forge its own path, trying to bring planting to dry regions, creating revolving loans for livestock that are paid back with seedlings instead of money, and planting trees in the national forests. Now the movement faces unprecedented demand from Kenyans inspired by their Peace Prize winner. The movement entertains possible offers from the new climate change markets as it tries to find new sources of funding to meet growing demand.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement began as a way to provide fuel close to home for Kenyan women, to encourage planting nutritious food and to green the hillsides. Now the movement encompasses thousands of community nurseries nearly 100 thousand members. But as communities organize they do more than plant trees. Wangari's Maathai's daughter Wanjira explains.

WANJIRA MAATHAI: They plant trees, okay 1000 trees, 2000 trees. Wow, okay, we have fruit, maybe we should sell this fruit. We have too much fruit, so just one thing leads to the other.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet continues our story.


LOBET: Green Belt organizers are rarely in the office. They're usually on the road, visiting chapters, bouncing along past the billboards for Nido powdered milk and Kenya Tea, along rutted roads people say by now should be paved with gems for all the money past governments have supposedly spent on them.


LOBET: We reach today’s destination the village of Gitito at sunset. The people of Gitito had been planting trees for shade, firewood, an income for a while, when they decided to address another problem. During the rainy season when food is abundant it spoils easily because there's little power and no refrigeration. During the dry season food is scarce. So Greenbelt organizers taught people here how to dry their food in the sun for when it’s needed. Now children are eating a lot more vegetables. But Green Belt member Joyce Kagiithi says there's something else. She looks at herself differently since the Green Belt Movement came to town.


VOICEOVER: Before, I worked in the farm compound and looked after my children. I couldn't stand up amongst people, or give them my views about things. I was not able to do even the smallest thing in this respect.


VOICEOVER: Professor came here and she showed us that a woman has the right to speak, and when she speaks, she can make things advance. A woman has a right to speak. And now I feel if I speak, things can move forward.


LOBET: Over the years the Green Belt Movement has cut a path quite different from most Western environmental organizations. The inverse of tightly-focused, it can seem like an octopus to the outsider, with tentacles in every conceivable community problem searching for a solution.


MWANGI: I want to show you my goats. I call it Wackip. Wackip was the first goat here. That is his daughter. And also this one is hers.

LOBET: Jephunneh and Joyce Mwangi received one goat and then gave back its first female offspring to another Green Belt member.

MWANGI: When I give them one, the other one goat will remain mine, my property mm? My property, if I want to slaughter it, if I want to sell it, it is mine.


LOBET: And the Mwangis are also advancing into one of Green Belt's newer community income activities--beekeeping.

Jephunneh Mwangi shows off the boxes where he recently began keeping bees; honey brings a good price at the market. The Green Belt movement provides the hives in exchange for the planting of trees. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

MWANGI: I spoke to the Green Belt Movement they told me there is a revolving fund. I can be given some beehive, keep bees, and I'll not pay with money, I’ll pay with planting trees. So I was given ten beehives. That's one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Then I’ll plant 8,000 trees. Not me alone, with my group members. When we plant them, then the beehives will be ours.

LOBET: But for several years now, the Green Belt Movement has reached beyond even its many rural projects and its occasional urban conflicts. Pushed partly by donor organizations, it’s taken on restoring Kenya's degraded forests. The British planted exotic eucalyptus and pines for timber and industrial tea drying. They also invited farmers in to plant crops. So now, the Green Belt movement is reaching out to professional foresters as allies.


KAMAU: My name is Miriam Kamau I'm the forester in charge of Jokeini Forest Station in [?] district of Kenya.

LOBET: The red brown earth here has a sweet deep smell. The sunlight’s branch tips electric green. Miriam Kamau says when the Green Belt Movement came to her and asked if they could plant trees in the forest, she wasn't sure what to think.

KAMAU: I was afraid because I didn't know their intentions. I didn't know if they are prophets of doom. I didn't know if they are coming to witchhunt me. So at first there was that personal fear.

LOBET: But Kamau remembered her father who was not a trained forester, but planted trees anyway. The Green Belt members reminded her of him.

KAMAU: Even most people are telling me to abandon them. And I'm telling you today because I am happy because even the fear I had, it is gone. I find they are a channel for me to learn more, even to advance. I have been able to learn from them and we have been able to do great things. So even I would urge, where Green Belt has not started, let people not fear them.

LOBET: Let people not fear them, Kamau says. But she concedes there were problems with Green Belt planters in the forest.

KAMAU: To start with, you know they are not qualified, so there are some hitches. Like the spacing in the forests they were planting haphazardly. They were planting theirs very closely, close together. I was able to tell them to try and space these trees.

LOBET: This free labor has proved valuable to Kamau. Green Belt workers cleared acres of thorny brush to plant indigenous trees when the forest service was laying off workers. This model may be good for Kenya's forests, but it represents a fundamental shift for Green Belt. Under some pressure from donors, it now only pays for seedlings planted on public land, not those planted at home. To plant in the forest, members have to travel, often on foot, carrying heavy seedlings. Green Belt staffer Njogu Kahare says the organization doesn’t have the money to pay for both.

KAHARE: Green Belt would have liked to be able to compensate or give a token of appreciation for planted trees because it keeps the movement alive! But funding is not, and also what we are asking the women to do in terms of planting trees on public land is so much more demanding. And the Green Belt really needs to get money to support the women. Although you’re not even paying them, provide transport for the seedlings. Don't tell the women to carry the seedlings on their backs! Fundraising for that kind of work.

In dry Machakos, the Green Belt movement has dammed streams, saving residents hours previously spent searching for water. The ponds bring an increased risk of malaria, but locals say it’s worth it. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

LOBET: The fear is that people will simply choose to plant fewer trees, a serious reverse for a movement with tree planting at its heart. There have been reverses before. In fact, now at age 30, Green Belt is revisiting some of those failures with new ideas….In Machakos, people farm the front lines of desiccation. Green Belt failed here to get people to water seedlings, the baby trees were just extra mouths to feed. Zipora Yolodiaca.


VOICEOVER: Before I used to spend one and a half hours looking for water and still I only came back with five gallons, and because five gallons is not enough, we’d often have to walk another hour and a half to fetch another five gallons in the same day.


VOICEOVER: If you have a small baby and no one to care for it, you have to carry the baby and the jerry can to fetch water. When I’m done fetching water, I must organize for lunch. After lunch it is now time to go to where the animals are to make sure they have water.

LOBET: Today, Yolodiaca stands beside a year-round source of water. A pond created by damming the river here. Dams are somewhat unpopular among western environmentalists, but different forms of pooling or water-harvesting are no longer rare in some dry countries.


VOICEOVER: But now I can just come down to the water and my goats drink and go home in a short period of time. With the extra hours, I have time to plant and tend trees with my group, to work on my own farm plot, to plant vegetables, lots of things.

LOBET: Now that there is water, people here are farming things that would have been unimaginable before and are making money from it. They grow tomatoes, potatoes and papaya in holes designed to slow rainy runoff and percolate water back into the river. Nearby communities clamor for similar dams. People in Machakos concede there has been more malaria since they created this standing water. But several people said it's worth it.

MAN: We need water, we don't care about malaria. We have to use nets.

LOBET: More water. More is what people want from Green Belt these days. More planting containers, more spades, more dams. The nation's schools now also want more, thanks to a pilot program Green Belt has begun for 4th, 5th and 6th graders. It's a project that could launch a new constituency for a movement that's mostly middle-aged. With a grant from a U.S. donor, organizers began teaching river ecology at a middle school. And some kids proved very eager. David Nyagi.

NYAGI: There are those who are touched in their inner beings and they like this job.

LOBET: The kids collected leaves from two native Kenyan tree species, fig and Meru Oak, and from eucalyptus, an Australian species introduced by the British.

NYAGI: And then we put them in a pack, then we put them in the river.

LOBET: The kids measure river temperature and make other observations, then let the separate baskets of leaves lie underwater in the current for three weeks. Then they retrieve them. When they retrieve the native leaf packs, the leaves were decomposed down to their leaf skeletons, by insects. The kids counted 16 kinds of mayflies, don flies and other macro-invertebrates.

NYAGI: But in the leaf pack of the eucalyptus we only found one type of macro invertebrate.

LOBET: The lesson, Nyagi says, is that the eucalytus was not contributing to the river’s ecosystem. Seventy Kenyan schools now participate in Leaf Pack but there are requests from 200 more. Meanwhile, Green Belt has been asked to organize tree planting for people in prison. And they have been actively working to turn Kenyan soldiers into tree planters. According to the organization, soldiers have already planted tens of thousands of seedlings. Wangari Maathai.

MAATHAI: Recently I was talking to some other soldiers in Kenya and because they wanted to plant trees and I took advantage of that situation to explain, to show them that although they are soldiers, they are trained to protect the borders of the country, they are trained to protect the country, that, in fact, the country was disappearing below their feet without knowing, while holding their guns. I said, “you hold your gun, what are you protecting? The whole country is disappearing with the wind and the water. When you look at the rivers and they are brown, that is your country disappearing, going into the Indian Ocean. So if you really want to protect, you should hold the gun on your right and a tree seedling on your left. That's when you become a good soldier.”

LOBET: The army, the prisons, the school. The Green Belt Movement is more popular than ever and stretched thin. On one hand, Wangari Maathai’s Nobel Peace Prize brought great recognition to the movement in Kenya and throughout the world, a validation of their work. As Wanjira Maathai says, “we no longer have to convince people.” Members like Eunice Nyokabi feel lifted up. She stands surrounded by her nursery outside Nairobi. For mango alone, her group can easily grow 50 thousand seedlings a year.

NYOKABI: I was very happy for professor. Because she worked here. She didn't go away. She fought here in Kenya. And we are very happy, we as women, for professor. We feel we are people who are recognized . Women, you know African women, we are put down by the men. But now we have the courage to move on with the work to work hard. Yeah. Yeah, we have the courage now to talk about it!

LOBET: Mary Wythera, is old enough to have worked on a British plantation. She went to the airport to greet Wangari when she returned from Oslo with her prize.


VOICEOVER: There's nothing else I feel except happiness. In fact, very, very happy, because the work we have done. And when she comes here, you know she makes us honored, like an honored guest. She makes us feel like if you went to someone's house and they slaughtered a goat.

LOBET: It’s more difficult now for Wangari Maathai's to visit people’s houses. She’s a member of Parliament and assistant minister for the environment. She belongs to the world now.


LOBET: In New York, Brazaville, Rome and Tokyo, she presses the case for topsoil, for Africa’s tropical forests and for better government there and when she’s back home, crowds of people await her for matters as large as the Congo Basin or as small as a village water contract.

WANJIRA MAATHAI: We have about 6,000 invitations. Yes, it's a lot of demand on the work and the staff and the expansion capability of Green Belt. There's a bigger demand for resources. So the idea now is really to create a base, an endowment for the Green Belt Movement, so that the fundraising doesn’t become the driving force of what we do.

LOBET: Grants from donors in Norway, the Netherlands, Austria and the United States have supported the bulk of Green Belt work until now. One kind of new offer makes them wary. As the world gears up to trade in the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, to address the earth's warming, the Green Belt Movement has been approached because their stands of trees could be certified as a place where carbon is stored. But senior staffer Njogu Kahare says they'll have to consider the offers carefully.

KAHARE: The source of the money is people who are polluting somewhere so they are very keen for the planting to succeed and to be certified so that they can trade in that carbon credit. So we have to be very careful about this because we want the community to plant trees because they understand they are caring for the environment, and if they decide down the road to use some of the trees, they should be able to do that.

LOBET: With the increased demands of the Nobel Prize, there's a weariness that shades Wangari Maathai's willing smile. Everyone around her, though, tires before she does. And her message is unchanging. “Don’t talk about planting trees, plant them.” Her hand on the shovel is noticeably firmer than those of the diplomats who sometimes surround her as she plants yet another seedling, this one in New York.


MAATHAI: When God created the earth, He covered it, the way it is here. The soil is supposed to be covered, in its green color. When you see the soil, it is crying to be clothed with green vegetation. That is the nature of the land. So when the soil is exposed, in many ways it is crying out for help, it is naked and it needs to be clothed. It needs color, it needs cloth of green. That is where the concept of the Green Belt Movement came from, it is to clothe the earth with her dress. And I want to appeal to all the people of the world to cover the earth with her cloth of green vegetation.

LOBET: “Remember what millions of hands can do,” Wangari Maathai often reminds people. Next, the Green Belt hopes to carry that message thousands of miles away to some of the most naked land on the planet, the stripped clean slopes of Haiti.

For Living On Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet.



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