A Tree Grows in Arlington to Honor Prof. Maathai

Written by Lisa Hayden on . Posted in Act


The roots of a Silverbell tree are slowly expanding into the soil of an Arlington, Va. garden where it was planted Friday in memory of Kenya’s Dr. Wangari Maathai — like so many other trees growing in Kenya, in Africa and around the world because of her inspiration.

Dignitaries, colleagues and friends of Prof. Maathaai gathered in the garden behind the worldwide headquarters of The Nature Conservancy on the morning of Oct. 19 to honor the memory of the founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, a heroine of the women’s and environmental movements and the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

“I was deeply saddened to hear of Wangari Maathai’s death last September,” said Kristen Patterson, manager of U.S. Relations for the Conservancy’s Africa Region, who organized the event. “Prof. was a warm, joyful woman and a true inspiration for the conservation and women’s movements in Kenya and the world. My first thought…was that I wanted to plant a tree in her honor on behalf of The Nature Conservancy.”

Patterson said she had been deeply moved by a 2008 ceremony when she helped plant a fig tree with a Green Belt Movement community group in Tumutumu, near Mount Kenya. “The first time I met Prof., she shook my hand warmly in both of hers; the second time she enveloped me in a huge hug,” Patterson recalled during the ceremony.

The Conservancy first worked with the Green Belt Movement (GBM) in 2008 to plant more than 720,000 trees in Kenya’s Mau Forest over three years. The Conservancy’s international climate policy team also worked closely with Dr. Maathai at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change COP 15 in Copenhagen in December 2009, where she gave a keynote address at a Conservancy event on climate adaptation, “Building Resilient Communities and Ecosystems.”

During the ceremony, participants picked up a shovel and helped to cover the tree’s roots with soil.

Stephen Mills, Green Belt Movement U.S. Director – spoke of how he got to know Wangari when he worked for Sierra Club for 25 years, when she gave her blood (literally) to the people of Kenya to fight for human rights and women’s rights through tree-planting.

“I used to pick her up at Dulles airport and we’d go meet with Congress,” Mills said. “On more than one occasion she would have me pull over and she’d look at the size of the trees we plant here. She’d say, “what is that? She said, ‘In Kenya we plant these little, little seedlings. How do you plant these big live trees?”

“What I think the GBM and TNC have in common is, when you plant trees and protect forests like you guys do, you are giving people hope. You’re providing inspiration, you’re changing the way people think about the environment,” he said, “and this is what Wangari did so brilliantly.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, W. Mark Bellamy shared the story of when he first met Wangari, a day spent carrying seedlings, shoveling soil and maneuvering big watering buckets, which he described as “probably the best, most useful morning I spent as an ambassador.”

Wangari was also a teacher who “helped us understand and interpret this glaring reality that was right in front of us…that so many Kenyans, so many Africans, so many people in the developing world live off the land…and it’s the quality of the soils, it’s the availability of water, pasture, it’s a bit of forest cover, whatever they continue to use for fuel. And not just their livelihoods (but) their survival.”

“And when those resources are not equitably shared, or when they’re plundered by others, it’s not just livelihoods that are threatened, it’s whole societies that are torn apart,” Bellamy said. “So conservation and planting trees isn’t just a matter of doing good conservation work, it really is a matter of development, it’s a matter of political steering, it’s a matter of the economic development.”

Charles Oluchino, The Nature Conservancy’s Kenya Program Director, told the group that Wangari “revolutionalized the way conservation works in Kenya through her blood and sweat…She was able to stand against the establishment for that which will take care of the generations to come.”

Collaboration now continues in Kenya’s Upper Tana River, where The Nature Conservancy is building technical watershed management skills within the Green Belt Movement to maximize restoration activities and establish an Upper Tana Water Fund (a tool piloted in Latin America, in which downstream water users help fund upstream conservation that protects water quality). Using tree-planting, GBM is mobilizing communities — especially women — to improve equity, livelihoods, security and environmental conservation.

Nairimas Ole-Sein, Counsellor from the Republic of Kenya’s Embassy, said she was very happy to see that Wangari’s “dream is living on beyond her and she has been able to inspire many people to carry on with her work.”

Lisa Hayden is a blogger and writer for The Nature Conservancy

Featured photo by Jordana Fyne (During her first visit to The Nature Conservancy’s headquarters, Ms. Nairimas Ole-Sein, Counsellor, Embassy of the Republic of Kenya helps plant a tree in memory of Wangari Maathai.)

Thumbnail photo by Jordana Fyne (A marker for the Silverbell tree planted on Oct. 19 in memory of Dr. Wangari Maathai in The Nature Conservancy garden in Arlington, Va.)

Top photo by photo by Jordana Fyne (Kristen Patterson of the Conservancy’s Africa program helps plant a tree in memory of Wangari Maathai in Arlington, Va.)

Photo 2 by Kamweti Mutu (Speakers at the Oct. 19 tree-planting ceremony honoring Dr. Wangari Maathai in The Nature Conservancy garden in Arlington, Va., included, from left to right: Nairimas Ole-Sein, Counsellor, Embassy of the Republic of Kenya; Stephen Mills, U.S. Director of Green Belt Movement; Kristen Patterson of The Nature Conservancy; W. Mark Bellamy, Former U.S. Ambassador to Kenya; Charles Oluchino, The Nature Conservancy’s Kenya Program Director; Glenn Prickett, Conservancy Chief External Affairs Officer).

Photo 3 by Jordana Fyne (Former U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, W. Mark Bellamy shovels dirt on a tree planted to commemorate the life of Wangari Mathaai.)

Photo 4 by Jordana Fyne (Charles Oluchino, The Nature Conservancy’s Kenya Program Director takes photographs at the tree-planting ceremony for Wangari Maathai in Arlington, Va.)


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