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“I found myself not just a woman wanting to plant trees to provide food and firewood. I found myself a woman fighting for justice, a woman fighting for equity. I started planting trees and found myself in the forefront of fighting for the restoration of democracy in my country.” —Wangari Maathai
Planting trees for fuel, food and timber is not what one usually associates with winning a Nobel Peace Prize. Yet with that simple act, Wangari Maathai helped spark a movement to reclaim Kenya’s land from a century of deforestation while providing new sources of livelihood to rural communities.The tree-planting groups that formed gave the women a reason to come together and become involved in resolving their communities' challenges.
TAKING ROOT: The Vision of Wangari Maathai tells the story of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, a grassroots organization encouraging rural women and families to plant trees in community groups, and follows Maathai, the movement’s founder and the first environmentalist and African woman to win the Nobel Prize. Maathai discovered her life's work by reconnecting with the rural women with whom she had grown up. They told her they were walking long distances for firewood, and that clean water was scarce. The soil was disappearing from their fields and their children were suffering from malnutrition. “Well, why not plant trees?” she suggested.
Maathai soon discovered that tree planting had a ripple effect of empowering change. In the mid-1980s, Kenya was under the repressive regime of Daniel arap Moi, whose dictatorship outlawed group gatherings and the right of association. In tending their nurseries, women had a legitimate reason to gather outside their homes and discuss the roots of their problems. They soon found themselves working against deforestation, poverty, ignorance, embedded economic interests and government corruption; they became a national political force that helped to bring down the country’s 24-year dictatorship.
Using archival footage and first-person accounts, the film documents dramatic political confrontations of 1980s and 1990s Kenya and captures Maathai's infectious determination and unwavering courage through in-depth conversations with the film’s subjects. TAKING ROOT captures a world view in which nothing is perceived as impossible. The film also presents an awe-inspiring profile of one woman's three-decade journey of courage to protect the environment, ensure gender equality, defend human rights and promote democracy—all sprouting from the achievable act of planting trees.
Update from the filmmakers, March 2009
The Green Belt Movement’s (GBM) traditional community development programs through tree-planting have continued to expand across Kenya as demand for these programs grows. The goal of GBM’s newest advocacy programs is to work on a Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar) site in Lake Naivasha. As most of the lakes in Kenya are rapidly disappearing, GBM is doing educational and advocacy work around this project in local communities as well as within the Kenyan government. They have met with stakeholders, including government officers, and have organized a celebration for World Wetlands Day in Naivasha to educate community members about the importance of protecting the lake for the sake of their environment and their livelihoods. They have also initiated a major national campaign to preserve all the wetlands in Kenya.
During the post-election violence and ethnic clashes in 2007-2008, GBM mobilized communities in conflict to come together peacefully through dialogue. This program, internationally known as GBM’s “Peace Tent Initiative,” continues.
GBM also continues to plant trees with the military, and the program has been very successful. Soldiers are starting their own tree nurseries in military camps, holding environmental education seminars and planting thousands of trees to help reforest Kenya.
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the NAACP in Los Angeles, at the NAACP Image Awards, Dr. Wangari Maathai and Vice President Al Gore received the Chairman's Award from Julian Bond for their environmental work.
Dr. Maathai also spoke at the first U.S. congressional briefing on the environment under the new Obama administration, in the company of Senators Lugar and Kerry, as well as a diverse list of NGO leaders, corporate leaders and other stakeholders. This briefing was a "Call for U.S. Leadership" in protecting tropical forests as an essential strategy in the fight against climate change and was organized by Avoided Deforestation Partners.