Kenyan winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, and also Deputy Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources and Member of Parliament, Wangari Maathai, launched in 1977 the Green Belt Movement, which spread from Kenya across Africa.
The movement has an environmental conservation programme focused on promoting the planting of indigenous trees in forest catchment areas and riparian reserves, private farms with high community access, and public spaces to preserve local biological diversity. For the purpose of conservation, medicine and herbs, shade, biodiversity increase and protection of cultural sites, indigenous trees are provided as the best suited species. Exotic fast growing species are provided to supply for household needs and fodder. However, Maathai warns that the introduction of some exotic plant species can have a severe effect on the balance of the ecosystem.
Though promoting tree planting, Wangari Maathai stands far apart from the large-scale tree monoculture model. She has cautioned against giving priority to exotic plants, which she says are becoming a threat to Africa’s flora and fauna. “Thinking money all the time is also contributing to the governments’ sacrificing our rich biodiversity”, said Maathai in an interview (The East African Magazine, November 13-19, 2006). She warned against the present trend that gives “a lot of emphasis now to trees such as the eucalyptus”. “Several years down the line, the water table will begin to go down with the huge tapping of water from the ground by these trees, because they consume too much water. The argument is that they mature quickly. But the sad thing is that they are being introduced in the continent’s highlands, which are the custodian of the continent’s natural drainage system, without which animals and people downstream cannot survive”, said the former Nobel laureate.
Along similar lines – and even with the Green Belt Movement as a partner –, UNEP launched a major tree planting campaign --the Plant for the Planet: Billion Tree Campaign, http://www.unep.org/billiontreecampaign/-- which encourages the planting of indigenous trees and trees that are appropriate to the local environment in areas such as degraded natural forests and wilderness areas. The objective is to plant at least one billion trees worldwide during 2007.
However, the project also encourages “sustainably managed plantations”. This raises a number of doubts, given that two plantation certification schemes (PEFC and FSC), that have consistently certified unsustainable large-scale tree plantations are partners of the campaign, and so is the FAO, which has been -and still is- the world’s main monoculture plantation promoter. It is interesting to note that the campaign states that “mixtures of species are preferred over monocultures” – a wording very similar to that of FSC’s criterion 10.3 which states that “Diversity in the composition of plantations is preferred”. Why not simply say that large-scale tree monocultures will not be accepted within this campaign?
The importance that the campaign puts on tree planting pledges -- anything from a single tree to 10 million trees -- may easily result in the involvement of business and industrial interests which could use it to publicise their vast monocultures. In this respect, it is revealing to see that the campaign’s “Inaugural Corporate Partner” is none other than Toyota, a Japanese corporation involved in genetic manipulation of plantation trees. Will we soon see Weyerhaeuser, APRIL, Advance Agro, Sappi, Mondi, Stora Enso, Metsa Botnia, Smurfit and others as “new corporate partners” of the campaign?
In this respect, it is essential to maintain the spirit of Wangari Maathai’s words: “when we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope". It is clear from the above quotes that she is thinking in terms of indigenous species or small community plantations. If large scale tree monocultures are included, the result will be that the campaign will easily achieve the quantity target, but will in fact be planting seeds of conflict and seeds of despair.
Article based on: “Unbowed. One Woman’s Story”, Wangari Muta Maathai, published by William Heinemann, 2006; “Beware those foreign plants”, The East African Magazine, November 13-19, 2006.