Throughout history, women have taken up prominent roles in spearheading environmental activism. Led by Amrita Devi, 363 people lost their lives saving Khejri trees by hugging them. It was their form of peaceful protest against the king’s men who were ordered to axe down the Khejri trees. In central India, Medha Patkar headed the Narmadha Bacho Andholan to give voice to the people who were affected by the Sardar Sarovar dam project. In the late 90s, Julia Butterfly sat on a 180-foot tall California Redwood tree for over two years to guard it against the loggers of a rubber company. The 110-year-old Karnataka woman Saalumarada Thimakka single-handedly planted more than 8000 trees, especially banyan. Today, 19-year-old Greta Thunberg confronts world leaders to give climate change the attention it needs. Innumerable contributions by women are buried unearthed in history under the vice of patriarchy.
In a quintessentially patriarchal setting, from collecting water to gathering fuel and firewood for cooking, women often bear the task of providing nourishment for the family. As primary caretakers, women act as a bridge between nature and the health of their families. Thanks to gender roles, when there’s water scarcity or water pollution in the local well, or difficulty in acquiring fresh herbs or vegetables, women are going to be the first to notice. Natural resource depletion and deterioration, therefore, become their problem to deal with to meet their basic needs.
Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Muta Maathai initiated the Green Belt Movement in Africa which went forth to plant more than 51 million trees across the nation to date. She not only became the first African to receive a Nobel Prize, but it was also the first peace prize given to an activist who was concerned with environmental preservation.
Several scholars and common folk alike were skeptical of the 2004 Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to name an environmentalist as a global peacemaker. Conventionally, Peace prizes have always been reserved for people involved in humanitarian action. From Nelson Mandela to Aung San Suu Kyi, peace prize winners were deeply and politically engaged in their struggle for democracy and equality between people.
So how exactly does Wangari Maathai, whose contribution to the community ends with the seemingly non-political practice of planting trees, fit into this narrow category? To this hungry question, Maathai answers in her Nobel acceptance speech, “In this year’s prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has placed the critical issue of environment and its linkage to democracy and peace before the world. For their visionary action, I am profoundly grateful. Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy, and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come.”
Acknowledging that environmental deterioration unfairly and systemically marginalizes the women and the poor more than it does an archetypal upper-class man is crucial for challenging inequality amidst people. The United Nations Millenium Development Goals (MDG) lays out its targets for holistic socio-economic and political upliftment. Gender equality and a Sustainable environment are named to be two of the key objectives of MDG. Essentially, Maathai claims that the ties between these three intersectional entities – gender, democracy, and the environment – are intricate.
The Green Belt Movement was purely women-driven. “Tree planting became a natural choice to address some of the initial basic needs identified by women,” says Maathai. From this statement, we can derive that the catalyst for the Green Belt Movement may not solely be rooted in eco-conservation itself. Tree plantations cleared a number of obstacles that African women were facing, especially acquiring food and firewood. Additionally, since tree planting is simple and guarantees successful results within a reasonable time period, Maathai was able to hold the interest and commitment of the local women.
Through their involvement in the movement, several women got to attain financial freedom, and that not only gave them dignity and purpose in the society but also promoted solidarity amidst these women and allowed them to question their agency within the patriarchal setup for the first time.
By also questioning the apathy of a government that deprioritizes the welfare of the women and the poor (since they are the most affected by climate change and resource depletion), Maathai’s movement is a fight for democracy and human rights itself. With time, the tree turned into an emblem for peace and conflict resolution. GBM used these peace trees to reconcile disputing communities during the ethnic conflicts in Kenya as well as during the re-writing of the Constitution to foster cultural peace.
- Wangari Maathai – Wikipedia
- Green Belt Movement – Environmental Justice and Women’s Rights: A Tribute to Wangari Maathai by Mechthild Nagel, SUNY Cortland and IAD fellow, Cornell University
- Green Belt Movement – Wikipedia