Lost There, Felt Here: Protecting the Lungs of Our Planet

Throughout Africa, as in much of the world, women hold primary responsibility for tilling the fields, deciding what to plant, nurturing the crops, and harvesting the food. They are the first to become aware of environmental damage that harms agricultural production. The Green Belt Movement in Kenya started in 1977 when women from rural areas and urban centers, reflecting on their needs at organized forums, spoke about environmental degradation.

Wangari Maathai was born in Kenya in 1940. Kenya was a British colony, but as Maathai was growing up, the British government was in the process of handing power back to the native Kenyans. Maathai wanted to participate in this new government and needed an education to do so. Through the Kennedy airlift program, she attended college in the U.S. She returned to Kenya, studied at the University of Nairobi, and became the first female scholar from East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate.

Maathai wanted to promote democracy and protect the rights of women. She served on the National Council of Women of Kenya, and after hearing stories of rural women struggling with drought and a lack of wood, she introduced the idea of planting trees. In 1977, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, aimed at countering the deforestation that was threatening the agricultural population. Over time, the Green Belt Movement contributed to the planting of over 30 million trees.

Maathai was elected to the Kenyan parliament in 2002 and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace. She died in Nairobi, Kenya, in September 2011.

In this lesson, students will relate the concepts of deforestation to their own lives and come to understand the depth and breadth of Wangari Maathai’s human rights work and the importance of protecting civic space. Students will either write a persuasive letter or create a short film to send to their senators to ask them to join the global climate task force of governors and R.E.D.D. (Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), to include forests in their Climate Agreement, and to show how the degradation of forests affects all human beings and to encourage participation in the Billion Trees Campaign by planting a tree in their community.

Because all the activities involve independent or group research that can be done online, this lesson plan fits into either virtual or in-person classrooms, with opportunities for discussion and collaboration on Zoom or with classmates.