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From the Ground Up

Wangari Maathai's Plan For Cultivating Peace Is Taking Root in Africa

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page D01

She is a young girl in Kenya, sent by her mother to fetch water from a small stream. But she is dallying.

The frogs fascinate her, and those wiggly little black things, the tadpoles, and those strings of things that look like beads but break when she tries to pick them up because they are really tadpole eggs.

She is on her knees, amid the tall stalks of the arrowroot plants. She is crawling along, seeking the water's source, and she finds the place where the water comes "bubbling out, very, very gently . . . out of the belly of the earth." It is a momentous discovery, in her little girl's mind, and she will remember it always.

She stands up amid the tall arrowroot and sees, all around her, the silvery dance of water atop the broad, green leaves. There is green everywhere in Nyeri, her home region, lush with trees and shrubs. The image imprints itself in her consciousness: the earth as if should be.

But the stream dried up. Silt choked the rivers. Land grew barren. Forests fell to the tyranny of the colonial-era plantation system. And the little girl, Wangari Maathai, would grow up to lament this assault on nature and set out to do something about it.

She studied and traveled the world. She mastered the biological sciences, launched an environmental movement that planted 30 million trees. She protested for human rights, suffered beatings and jailings, was called a madwoman for her activism, but then rode into government on Kenya's wave of democracy. And earlier this month, she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Her name now stands with the likes of Nelson Mandela.

But she has never forgotten the magic of that gurgling little stream. From that memory, her passion flowed.

Purpose in Planting

In New York last week, on her first trip to the United States as Nobel laureate, Maathai, 64, gave radio interviews (Air America, National Public Radio, Pacifica, XM Satellite), TV interviews (CNN, MSNBC, BET), plus a teleconference and a speech, attended receptions and dinners, all accompanied by an ever-present documentary crew chronicling her life, her work.

Watching her, listening to her, it never seemed that her passion wavered. In her husky voice and the lyrical cadence of her East African accent, the U.S.-trained biologist spoke at length, to anyone who asked, about why it is important to stop deforestation and desertification, about why environmentalism is part of good governance and peace. She talked about the tree as magic.

Trees are the center of her work. For nearly 30 years, she has trained rural women in Kenya to plant them. Using seedlings from Kenyan foresters, some 10,000 women have grown them in areas where the land is bare because so many trees have been felled for fuel or building materials. Called the Green Belt Movement, her project has set a global standard for how to turn rural communities into caretakers of the environment, making Maathai a kind of guru on grass-roots empowerment.

Tree planting sounds so simple, yet its impact, Maathai says, is profound.

Returning indigenous trees -- acacia, cedars, baobab -- to the landscape of Kenya will preserve water resources, halt soil erosion and desertification, she says. Agricultural output will improve, and there will be more food, more fuel, more building material, which will help strengthen and stabilize impoverished communities. When there is peace, democracy and good governance can flourish.

The foot soldiers in this process are women. Relegated to a subservient status in traditional African society, women are empowered and educated through Maathai's work about better ways to grow food, care for their livestock, feed their families. They earn a wage for nurturing their tree seedlings.

"None of us is that useless that we cannot improve the environment in which we live," Maathai says.

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