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How does planting trees become a political gesture? Biologist and political activist Wangari Maathai of Kenya received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for promoting sustainable development, democracy and peace, primarily through the Green Belt Movement she founded in 1977 with the goal of planting trees throughout Kenya. On a trip to sacred Tumutumu Hill this past summer, Daniela Vrbová from Czech Radio 6 found that Wangari Maathai’s legacy continues to have an influence on the lives of Kenyans even a year after her death.
Sazeničky v Tumutumu, Keňa
Between three and five members of the Tumutumu chapter of the Green Belt Movement meet daily at the forest nursery along the main road to the village. Depending on the time of year, they plant tree seeds or inspect and water seedlings.
The seeds are planted in a potting soil that is mixed ahead of time. The work looks a bit like children playing in the sand, and the songs sung by the workers also evoke a childlike atmosphere.
The singing and the ringing of mobile phones are no longer a problem: the planting of trees is legal and there is no fear of being reported. But this wasn’t always the case. When the community inspired by the philosophy of the Green Belt Movement was founded in the early 1980s, the tree planters weren’t in a mood to sing.
“The beginnings were difficult. Nobody wanted to work with us – they thought we were enemies of the government. You see, we were able to say: no, this is not right,” says Julius Githaiga, part of the 20-member community along with his wife and mother.
They were unhappy with the illegal deforestation of Tumutumu Hill and the resulting soil erosion. But the villagers below the hill did not protest very much. The country was under the firm control of a single party at the time – the Kenyan African National Union.
“The locals also didn’t care for us because they were also using the forest illegally. They cut down trees for wood, profit, and to increase the size of pastures for their cattle,” recalls Julius, who lost a front tooth protecting trees. A villager attacked him with a machete when Julius caught the man chopping down trees.
Wangari Maathai, the founder of the Green Belt Movement, was also subjected to repeated beatings by the police. “But we didn’t back down. The planting of trees is now an everyday routine,” says Julius. His wife Lydiah shows me how to plant various tree species.
It is a science: it is important to know how to plant a certain seed and in what type of soil. Seeds are purchased or collected from mature trees. The Green Belt Movement keeps track of how many trees are planted in a certain area and pays individual communities five Kenyan shillings per tree.
Planting trees is by no means a profitable activity; the benefits come in a different form. Communities work together to improve the public space around them; they enhance the landscape and the conditions for their own farming. For that reason it doesn’t matter if someone occasionally steals a tree from the nursery – chances are, the tree will be planted all the same and the result will be identical: one more tree for Kenya.
Today the Kenyan government and local councils are supportive of the Green Belt Movement, though only verbally, not financially. Samuel Macharia, the mayor of the village of Tumutumu, is one of these verbal advocates: “It supports the economic activity of the people. But I still think that more trees should be planted,” he says.
Since the founding of the movement in 1977, communities involved in the work estimate that they have already planted more than 50 million trees. I learned for myself how much work the planting of a single tree involves. I planted a wild olive tree (Olea africana) in Tumutumu on behalf of Czech Radio.
Planting a tree is an expression of optimism in the distant future, without a focus on immediate and quickly visible results. It took the villagers in Tumutumu the same slow speed at which a tree grows to understand the Green Belt philosophy. Today they already head into the forest to plant trees on their own – at their own initiative.
You can listen to the radio report at ČRo6 (in Czech)
The author of the article is Daniela Vrbová.
This trip was supported by the EcoFair Trade Dialogue project.