Many Kenyans have always known the late Prof Wangari Maathai’s love for nature but very few know how it all began.
The conservationist was always drawn to trees. Growing up with a grandmother that thought certain trees were sacred and should not be destroyed. She grew up to have a deep appreciation for forests.
In the mid 1970s, Maathai was called to action when she became aware of the ecological decline in Kenya from the desert expanding in the Sahara to watersheds drying up and streams disappearing .
She noted in a past interview having visited Nyeri only to find out that one of the streams she had known as a child, completely dried up. The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize recipient further observed that farms or plantations had replaced the vast forests that once occupied the land, this drained the ecosystem of water and degraded the soil.
She started listening to some of the problems faced by the people in the locales, especially women. Most of the issues raised were about water, nutrition and energy. It was then that she quickly realised that all of these problems are linked to the environment and this is when her love for trees sprouted.
In 1977, Maathai went on to establish The Green Belt Movement (GBM), an environmental organisation meant to empower communities especially women, to improve their livelihoods and conserve the environment . The initiative has planted over a million trees while at the same time fighting for the rights of women.
Due to her tireless efforts, Maathai was honoured as the first African woman to receive the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize, putting Kenya to the global map.
Decades after Maathai started her reforestation fight, the United Nations General Assembly declared the March 21, as the International Day of Forests in 2012.
The day encourages countries to undertake national and international efforts involving trees and forests such as tree planting campaigns.
The International Day of Forests is celebrated annually. The day has a different theme each year. The 2022 theme is Forest and Sustainable Production and Consumption.
According to the UN, forest sustainable management and resource use are essential in mitigating climate change and contributing to the wealth and well-being of current and future generations.
Forests are also crucial in the fight against poverty. Despite these invaluable environmental, economic, social, and health benefits, deforestation continues at an alarming rate around the world.
The UN also emphasised the importance of wood and how it can be used as a renewable resource when forests are managed sustainably.
Kenya has a forest cover of 7.4% which is 3.6% short of the constitutionally accepted 10%, according to the National Environment Management Authority – NEMA.