What Would Wangari Maathai Do?

Joe Romano, 

Marketing Manager


wangari maathai1If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.

— Confucius

Wangari Muta Maathai was born on April 1, 1940, in the central highlands of Kenya, and this September, at the age of 71, she died. By all measure, hers should have been a quiet, local life. Her parents were sustenance farmers who grew barely enough food to feed themselves and their six children. Normally, a girl of her class would not have gone to school, but, oddly, her parents chose to send her. Once there, she was seen to have abilities that led her teachers to encourage her to further her education. She went to college in America and returned to Kenya where she finished her Ph.D. and became research assistant to the Head of Veterinary Medicine at Nairobi University.

This was much more than anyone could have expected her to achieve, but it was not enough for Wangari Maathai. After marrying a politician, she was exposed to the poorest slums in Kenya, and her conscience forced her to act. She saw a vicious cycle — hungry women scavenging for firewood to prepare meals, felling more and more trees, which led to local deforestation, erosion, and the eventual desertification of land, which, in turn, led to more hunger.

She devised a simple plan, and, more importantly, she carried it out. Her grand scheme? Plant trees. She convinced the National Council of the Women of Kenya to take up her idea, and it soon became known as the Green Belt Movement, which offered free seedlings to women for the promise that they would tend them. For every tree that survived more than three months, a woman would receive a few pennies. The more trees she planted the more she made. Through the enactment of this simple plan deforestation was not only reversed, but women had found a way to make money for themselves.

Wangari had to fight hard and even bitterly to advance her ideas in a nation where powerful men were against her, including then-President Daniel Arap Moi who called it "un-African and unimaginable for a woman to challenge or oppose men." Undeterred, she fought on until her movement had spread to a dozen other African nations and she had been elected to Parliament. She was eventually awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Today, over twelve billion trees have planted under programs she initiated.

Like Wangari Maathai, many of us see vicious cycles at play in our own backyard. We see companies who are ready to put our entire bioregion at risk, endangering our water, soil, and air as well as our lifestyles and livelihoods to get at fossil fuels trapped in the shale below our soils.

We see people in our own town who don't have food to eat and many more who can't afford to eat healthy meals regularly.

We see families whose homes, communities and livelihoods have been washed away by storms whose increasing intensity and frequency are linked to the use of those same fossil fuels.

And it doesn't seem as if the federal or state governments are ready to help. Flood disaster relief has been used as a political football while communities await badly needed aid. Any plan to create jobs or end our dependence on fossil fuels is labeled an "entitlement program" that needs to be cut. And rather than feed the hungry, our legislators aren't even willing to fairly tax the wealthy. What can one person do in the face of these seemingly insurmountable problems?

We can solve big problems by thinking small and then acting. Profoundly, Wangari Maathai understood a simple truth: everyone needs to eat, so everyone needs to act. It is easy to say that we see a problem, but true understanding involves personal action.

For GreenStar members there are many ways to get involved this month.

GreenStar Community Projects (GSCP) is committed to making sure that everyone in our community has access to nourishing food. But to make that happen, our community needs to act. There are several opportunities: sign up for the Food Justice Walk-a-Thon on October 22, donate at our registers to GSCP, or sponsor a Walk-a-Thon team. If we can change the world in our little ten miles of reality, it could spawn a movement as powerful as the one created by a girl from Kenya.

We can think local and solve our own problems ourselves. When a flood hits our area, we go and help. Hundreds of local volunteers have shown up to get dirty and provide hope to those whose homes and businesses have been destroyed. Local residents are making a difference, and GreenStar members can give to relief efforts at any of our registers or can donate food directly into bins in our foyer. And that is just the beginning of what we can do.

Unless we act in large numbers, hydrofracking will almost certainly begin in our backyard. The DEC's recommendation to end a year-long ban on drilling in New York focuses on its projection that 37,000 jobs would be created rather than its charge to protect the environment. The DEC is taking comments on its environmental impact statement until Dec. 12. One of the more glaring problems is that while it protects New York City's and Syracuse's watersheds because of concerns that fracking contaminates underground wells and aquifers, the state seems ready to put Ithaca's drinking water and everyone else's in the state in danger. We encourage our members to write to their legislators and to make their opinions known during the comment period.

Finally, our community will be in the strongest position to control our own destiny if we can build systems that nurture locally owned businesses and organizations.

Local First Ithaca, in collaboration with GreenStar and a generous grant from the Park Foundation will present Revitalizing Our Local Economy from the Inside Out, an evening with Michael Shuman, the author of Going Local (1998), The Small-Mart Revolution (2006), and Local Dollars, Local Sense (2012). Shuman has led community-based economic development initiatives across the country, in areas such as Carbondale, CO, Martha's Vineyard, MA and St. Lawrence County, NY, among others.

The event is free and will be held at CSMA on Tuesday, Oct. 25, at 7 pm. The evening is part Local First Ithaca's mission to "bring people, businesses, and organizations together to create a successful local economy that uses resources, experience and inclusiveness to create a thriving and livable community." A Local Living Economy empowers the disenfranchised while supporting local commerce and community.

If Wangari Maathai were an Ithacan today, she would indeed live a local life, just not a quiet one. She would be at the forefront of any movement to make life better for her neighbors and for those in need. So if you are wondering if you should get involved in any of these initiatives, look first at what is needed, than ask yourself, "What would Wangari Maathai do?"


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