No one can doubt the persuasive powers of Wangari Maathai, Nobel peace prize-winner and 67-year-old former assistant minister of the environment in Kenya. It is she who has coaxed the Mexican army, Japanese geishas, French celebrities, 10,000 Malaysian schools, the president of Turkmenistan and children in Rotherham to roll up their sleeves, dig a hole and plant a tree.
It was an off-the-cuff remark of hers in 2006 that led to this far-flung initiative. She was in the US accepting an award when a businessman told her that his company was planning to plant a million trees. Jokingly, Maathai, who has spent most of a lifetime planting saplings, responded, â€śThatâ€™s great. But what we really need is to plant one billion trees.â€ť The UN â€“ and the Green Belt Movement Maathai founded among African women â€“ picked up the challenge.
In just over a year, in one of the largest mobilisations of people for a cause since the Asian tsunami, 1.5bn trees have been planted in nearly 50 countries, and a further billion more are pledged. Countries have fallen over themselves to plant the most and be linked with Maathai: Indonesia planted 79m in a day; Turkey says it has planted 500m, Mexico 250m, and India says that it will replant six million hectares of degraded forest.
Many of these saplings may not survive more than a few weeks, and the numbers are not to be trusted, but the billion tree campaign shows that Maathai â€“ a professor of biology and mother of three children â€“ has gone from being almost unknown in 2003 to a global treasure in just a few years. There is now barely a president or prime minister in Europe, Asia or Africa who has not invited Maathai to endorse their plans or tried to sign her up as a goodwill ambassador to show off their newfound enthusiasm for the environment. She has addressed the UN general assembly, carried the flag at the Olympic games, and received sackfuls of citations and awards. Maathai has succeeded in putting deforestation high on the agenda in developing countries, just as Al Gore made people in rich countries aware of climate change.
She has made tree planting an act of transformation in which everyone can engage. â€śThe planting of trees is the planting of ideas,â€ť Maathai says. â€śBy starting with the simple step of digging a hole and planting a tree, we plant hope for ourselves and for future generations.
â€śThe first steps were really to talk to women,â€ť she explains, â€śand to convince them that we could do something about their environment. They didnâ€™t have firewood, they didnâ€™t have clean drinking water and they didnâ€™t have adequate food. A tree brings transformation.â€ť
Maathai has also made it a political act. Like many others in developing countries, she has been beaten up, arrested and imprisoned for speaking out against environmental destruction, government oppression and abuse of human rights. â€śWhen we were beaten up, it was because we were telling the government not to interfere with the forests,â€ť she says. â€śWe were confronted by armed police and guards who physically removed us from the forests as we sought to protect these green spaces from commercial exploitation.â€ť
While Maathai is feted abroad as the first African woman Nobel laureate, she has always had a rocky time at home with party politics. She tried to stand for president in 1997, but her party withdrew her candidacy. She was finally elected an MP in 2002 with a 98% vote, but just before Christmas she failed to win even a nomination from the ruling party for the end-of-year election.
Maathaiâ€™s strength now lies in what she stands for. â€śIf I have learned one thing,â€ť she says, â€śit is that humans are only part of this ecosystem â€“ when we destroy the ecosystem, we destroy ourselves, for on its survival depends our own.â€ť