By Wangari Maathai
The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono is the story of a man after my own heart. Elzéard Bouffier plants trees because he can see how ruinous everything is without them. He decides to plant hundreds of thousands of trees, and slowly the community of humans and animals around him comes back to life. His village and the countryside around it thrive, and that is reward enough for this humble man.
I first became aware of the importance of trees as a little girl, when my grandmother told me that I should not collect wood from a nearby fig tree because it was a gift from God. Even though I didn’t know then why fig trees were special, I later understood that the fig tree’s deep roots tapped into underground streams and brought water to the surface, replenishing the land and bringing it life. Unfortunately, that indigenous wisdom, like the tree, did not survive the forces of colonialism and globalization. The pure stream where I used to play with frogspawn and tadpoles dried up, like the tree a victim of shortsighted forestry practices and the growing of cash crops.
I began to plant trees with the Green Belt Movement (GBM), an organization I founded in 1977. Rural women in Kenya had been telling me that they had to walk further and further to collect firewood for fuel. Their families were malnourished and their land was degraded. I saw that planting trees could provide these women with firewood, fruit, fodder for their livestock, and fencing for their land, and also stop soil erosion and keep streams flowing. Like the narrator of The Man Who Planted Trees, I saw human communities restored along with nature. This is not a mystical phenomenon; it is a fact of human existence. Human beings cannot thrive in a place where the natural environment has been degraded.
It is interesting that Elzéard Bouffier continues his work of planting trees through two world wars and that the narrator notices that people in the village become more kindly and optimistic once the trees have grown. So much conflict over the last hundred years has been about access to natural resources—to land, oil, minerals, timber, and water. In my effort to describe the linkage between good management of the environment, democratic space and peace, I have adopted a metaphor of the three-legged African stool. The three legs represent basic pillars for stable nations without which sustainable development is unattainable. By linking environment, democracy, and peace, the Norwegian Nobel Committee expanded the concept of peace and security, and validated my long-held belief that only through an equitable distribution of those resources and their sustainable use will we be able to keep the peace. I feel that, in his quiet way, Elzéard Bouffier understands that, too.
I was amused by the narrator’s observation that the professionals from the Forest Service offer only “a great deal of ineffectual talk” when they come to inspect the forest that has grown up because of Elzéard Bouffier’s efforts. When we women of the GBM went to the professional foresters to ask them for seedlings, we were told we weren’t qualified to plant trees. Now, women have been planting things in the ground for many centuries, and I didn’t think we needed a diploma to do the same with trees. So we “foresters without diplomas” planted trees much like Elzéard Bouffier did, by cultivating the seedlings and putting them in the ground. Since we started, we have planted thirty million trees throughout Kenya and expanded into other parts of Africa. The Green Belt Movement and The Man Who Planted Trees make a very important point: you do not need a diploma to make a difference; everyone is qualified to save the planet.
The Man Who Planted Trees is a charming story about the virtues of environmental stewardship and tireless service—both of which are very important. However, it is also a vision of the good things that happen when we care for the world around us, and take what was barren and make it green. I hope you will let the story of Elzéard Bouffier inspire you to plant trees wherever you can.