American Conservationist Learns from Kenya

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By Karin Rives

Adam Whelchel and Wangari Maathai (The Nature Conservancy)
Adam Whelchel of The Nature Conservancy with Wangari Maathai, the founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement. (The Nature Conservancy)

After practicing and preaching environmental conservation for the past 60 years, The Nature Conservancy knows a thing or two about strategy. So when Adam Whelchel, a conservation director for the U.S.-based group, traveled to Kenya in 2009, he thought he would teach the Green Belt Movement in Nairobi how to, well, run an environmental movement.

Instead, he says, “I walked away as a student.”

In fact, the 38-year-old Green Belt Movement (GBM) is a formidable force in the struggle to protect East Africa’s threatened water and forest resources. On its list of accomplishments is the planting of some 45 million trees, not a small feat in a country where competition over land is fierce.

Whelchel said he has been humbled by GBM’s remarkable ability to overcome conflicts and bring together people with different interests. “I saw that in every village I worked with them. People show a tremendous pride over their relationship with GBM,” he said.

He was also impressed by the commitment he witnessed. GBM staff, he said, will put in 14-hour days to try to save their country’s environment — and then still have energy for a joke at the end of the day.

The ability to laugh, no matter how big their challenges, Whelchel said, may give the conservationists in Africa an edge over many of their peers in other parts of the world.

Planting a Grass-roots Organization

Woman stands, smiling, with a crowd behind her. (© AP Images)
Wangari Maathai, who founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in environmental conservation and women’s rights. (© AP Images)

GBM’s world-renowned founder, Wangari Maathai, began small in the late 1970s, gathering village women to grow seedlings and plant trees. After operating under the government’s radar during the early years, her rapidly expanding movement caught the attention of Kenya’s then-president, Daniel arap Moi. He and others in power didn’t appreciate the fact that women were organizing on their own.

In an old public speech shown in a 2008 documentary about Maathai’s work, Moi can be seen criticizing a “certain woman” who had dared to rally other women to plant trees. “According to African traditions,” Moi said with a wry smile, “women must respect their men.”

But Maathai continued, fearlessly, to organize communities in the country’s semi-arid countryside, winning over more women and eventually men, teachers, children and politicians. In 2004, she became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. Maathai stayed involved with the group’s advocacy campaigns while writing articles and books at a prolific pace until her death in 2011.

Moi left power years ago, but East Africa’s environmental challenges remain. Today, GBM enjoys support from the Kenyan government as well as from seasoned environmental groups such as The Nature Conservancy. GBM staffers in Nairobi, London and Washington continue working to recruit new activists and obtain funding to increase the organization’s impact.

Strategy for a Growing Movement

Boys planting trees (The Nature Conservancy)
The Green Belt Movement teaches environmental education to Kenyan schoolchildren. (The Nature Conservancy)

Whelchel traveled from his office in Connecticut to Nairobi to help GBM take what he calls “a business approach to conservation.”

“It’s a way to think strategically about what priorities do we have and what actions need to be taken to achieve those priorities, and to then measure the outcome,” Whelchel said. “Without such plans … your messaging isn’t as sharp. People want to see a return on the investments and how their efforts have made a difference, and without having a way to measure, you’re less effective in telling that story.”

The Nature Conservancy returned Whelchel to Kenya in January 2011, this time to conduct a workshop focused on how GBM can incorporate watershed management in its strategy for Kenya and other parts of Africa.

Trees are critical to a healthy ecosystem because they help retain rainwater and replenish groundwater supplies. Kenya, however, has lost almost its entire forest cover in the past half-century due to illegal logging, tea plantations, and pressures from a growing population that must clear land to grow food.

Today, only 6 percent of the country is covered by trees.

Deforestation has aggravated droughts and also affected energy supplies. Kenya depends on hydropower for 44 percent of its electricity, making the entire economy vulnerable to water shortages.

“The prognosis is not good, and one thing they need for sure is more forest that can capture and filter more rainwater for the people who need it,” Whelchel said.

Wanjira Mathai, the daughter of the movement’s founder and its international liaison, said she remembers her mother telling her and her siblings at an early age to fight for what they believe in. Mathai (who spells her last name without the double a) has since earned a business degree and transitioned from a job in public health to work full time for GBM.

“We have benefited tremendously from the exchange of technical knowledge that has enabled us to not only do our work more efficiently, but also talk about our work in ways that demonstrate the impact,” she said.

Today, GBM is stronger than it has ever been as it networks with similar organizations in other parts of the African continent and with people in power.

“It’s one of the things that has become so wonderful,” Mathai said. “The government is the custodian of these forests, so we need to be working with them.”

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