Poverty, People, and Trees
In the suburbs of northern Nairobi there is a strip of forest that stands in stark contrast to the sprawl of shanty towns and Savannah. The Karura forest is a glittering green oasis in a sea of dust, concrete and crime, and it is a living testament to the work accomplished by Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai and her group the Green Belt Movement.
Social forestry is a growing movement within environmentalism that is founded upon the belief that poverty and environmental degradation can be eradicated simultaneously. By mobilizing people to take an economic and social interest in planting and preserving trees, ecosystems are being restored that can replace the disappearing stocks of trees due to commercialized logging while simultaneously revitalizing neighboring land back to its full agricultural potential.
Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, was educated in the United States and Germany. In the early 1970’s she became involved with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) that was founded in Nairobi in 1972. Maathai’s activism, while celebrated internationally, was met with fierce resistance from the Kenyan authorities. Labeled a radical, Maathai received little or no support from the state. This was partly due to her ethnicity (she was Kikuyu), and partly because she was a woman who challenged male authority. By merging her role as a feminist, environmentalist, and activist Maathai was able to rally women to plant trees throughout many parts of Kenya, and eventually sub-Saharan Africa.
The appeal of the Green Belt Movement is two fold. By employing the unemployed, and by giving agency to women in particular, the movement is an effective strategy to end poverty and gender injustice while simultaneously restoring the degraded landscape. Despite the obvious benefits, it is the poetic quality to the solution that makes it so successful.
Planting trees seems like an obvious, and at times cliched, approach to environmentalism. But when it is successfully linked to a population of people incapable of earning a living any another way, the potential of the program becomes clear. One man in India is attempting to repeat Wangari Maathai’s success in Kenya. Except, instead of several thousand women participating, SM Raju of Bihar, India has attempted to mobilize several hundred thousand peasants to plant nearly a billion (not a typo) trees in a single day.
Mass plantings are nothing new. China has tried, and failed, in its efforts to produce a green wall to stop advancing deserts. However, if SM Raju holds true to his word he may have avoided the disasters that plagued the Chinese in their 30 years of failed attempts. BBC News reported that the program mandated that:
“They would get the full payment if they can ensure the survival of 90% of the plants under their care. For a 75-80% survival rate, they will be paid only half the wage. If the survival rate is less than 75%, the families in the group will be replaced”
Instead of paying directly for the planting of a given number of trees upfront, having the payment tied to the success of the trees through time encourages better stewardship. By binding the welfare of the people to the health of the trees (and vice versa), Raju has developed a solution to the all-too-common problem of defending something as abstract as “nature” or “the environment.” Maathai also accomplished this through her successful weaving of gender, social justice, and environment issues into a single campaign, thereby associating gender equality with increased employment with ecological health.
So what is there to learn from the examples set forth by Raju and Maathai? While most Americans would scoff at the prospect of planting trees (let alone picking fruit), it is important for us to understand the importance of forming a vital connection between our own prosperity and the health of our environment, and recognizing that an increase in wealth and GDP at the cost of sacrificing natural capital or the ability of an ecosystem to recover is not real wealth.