Planting Trees to Heal the Earth

By Janet Sabina and Marnie Clark, set in Kenya

Carol Drysdale, age 13; Maggie MacArthur-McKay, age 15 watercolor
Maggie MacArthur-McKay, age 15 framed: watercolor
Aubrey Riley, age 11 framed: acrylic on canvas
Aubrey Riley, age 11 framed: color pencil and felt-tip pen

In Kenya, as people crowd onto the land they cut trees for farmland and firewood. Without tree roots, heavy rains wash the soil away. Deserts appear where forests used to be.

Wangari Maathai wanted to improve the life of Kenya’s people. She was told all the way through school that she would be a leader with the responsibility to help her people. This was not an easy job. She decided to help by planting LOTS of trees.

She got 6,000 free seedlings, but the people she found to plant them didn’t have the tools or money to get to the work done. And it was too dry to water them. All but two of the 6,000 seedlings died. This didn’t work.

Wangari realized she couldn’t do the work alone, so she started a committee of women. They got important leaders to plant trees in Kenya’s capital to honor Kenyan heroes. But they didn’t water the trees, and all of them died. This didn’t work.

So then the committee set a goal of planting millions of trees on public land and having people living nearby care for them. The forestry department liked the plan and agreed to provide free seedlings. But in the end they couldn’t afford it, so this didn’t work either.

Wangari thought: Why not train women to start tree nurseries? Then they could earn money by supplying the trees. Finally, something worked!

Women learned to gather seeds from nearby trees, start seedlings, and take care of them. They learned to run their own small businesses. Their work was called the Green Belt Movement, and it was wonderful.

Soon people were planting native trees to make windbreaks, hold moisture in the soil, and produce firewood. All this was wonderful too. News of their successes spread, and meetings were held explaining the importance of trees. People across Kenya wrote asking for trees to plant and forming committees. The Green Belt people provided tools, water tanks, and training to people who took care of trees.

Some people planted seedlings with enthusiasm, but then got tired of caring for them and many seedlings died. So the Green Belt people offered to send money for each tree still alive six months after planting. This solution worked.

People brought in new kinds of trees that grew faster and could be cut and sold sooner than native Kenyan trees. But trees cut down so soon don’t stop soil erosion. Also, Kenyan trees provide animal fodder, fruits, honey, and herbal medicines that the imported trees did not. The Green Belt people taught others about the benefits of native Kenyan trees. 

Wangari’s work has made a huge difference: over 1,500 tree nurseries began and over 10 million native trees were planted, mostly in Green Belts near schools. More than a million schoolchildren have helped care for trees.

Wangari received a $10,000 award for her work. People waited to hear how she would use it. She gave it to form new tree nurseries and Green Belt committees across Africa. Wangari cares for everyone and our precious Earth, and has experienced the extraordinary goodness and capabilities of ordinary people.