Wangaari Maathai: The visionary who brought environmental justice to the global population

Wangari Maathai

Wangaari Maathai’s passing in September 2011 was met with great sadness. This Nobel Prize winning activist set up the Green Belt Movement in 1977 empowering Kenyan women in the community, educating many about the importance of sustainable forestry and helping to secure a future for generations to come of impoverished African families. She rose to fame in the 80’s campaigning heavily against forest clearance proposed by the government and was arrested and vilified several times by the government of President Daniel Arap Moi. However, her legacy remains. The Green Belt movement is having a positive effect on the people who take part in the schemes and her vision is something that world leaders are calling for to combat global climatic change.

Kenya’s forests had been ravaged by government supported forest clearance The Green Belt movement was promoted by Maathai to engage women in planting trees to help meet their needs for fuel wood, building materials, and soil conservation. The project took into account traditional gender roles of men and women in Kenya, that differ so greatly from the gender roles in the UK today, reiterating the accepted roles of women in Kenya’s culture as home keepers, mothers and community organizers, whilst allowing men to get involved as agriculture is a unisex activity, avoiding as much internal conflict as possible. Although originally met with scepticism, the women who began the project had helped to plant over 30 million trees in Kenya by 2003 and now with Government backing, the Green Belt movement in the confidence of the government have looked to engage its 35000 schools, 16350 youth groups and 4300 women’s groups to target planting 1 billion trees a year as part of their official climate response strategy (Vidal, 2011). In November 2011 the government announced that the first 450 million had been planted, that’s just 419 million more than the UK planted this year.

Maathai’s vision to counter the drought, land degradation and water shortages in Kenya has lead to not only the ability for the indigenous communities to meet their own needs, and the empowerment of women in a male dominated cultural society, but has lead to the continued reforestation and climatic response that the world’s most economic countries need to engage with. Barrack Obama’s singular contribution to the Durban climate negotiations was to pay tribute to the work of Maathai and press the need for other countries to conserve their forests to help slow the effects of a steadily warming planet.

Kenya’s reforestation project is doing justice and improving the environment not only for their population, but is a beacon to all other nations showing how such a simple, inexpensive project can bring environmental justice to the global population.


Boyer-Rechlin, B. (2010) ‘Women in Forestry: A study of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement and Nepal’s Community Forestry Programme,’ Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research 25 (9), 69-72

Vidal, J. (2011) ‘Kenya – Ensuring Wangari Maathai’s Legacy Branches Out,’ Guardian [online] (last updated 11.22am Thursday 24th November) Available at: <; [Accessed 13th March 2012]

Vidal, J. (2011) ‘Barack Obama urges nations to follow lead of Wangari Maathai,’ Guardian [online] (last updated 04.46 pm Wednesday 7th December) Available at: <; [Accessed 13thMarch 2012]


The Thames Tunnel – a practical environmental solution or an unjust golden legacy?

London is internationally recognised as a Global City, renowned for its economic power and political influence. However, after a short boat ride down the river Thames, the sophisticated prowess of the city is often all but lost. You may in fact be excused from believing you have been transported to Victorian England as the potent stench of raw sewerage spills into your nostrils and discarded toilet paper meanders beneath your feet. Surely this foul scene is inappropriate for the 21st Century capital of England?

One of the 37 vales discharging raw sewerage into the Thames

39million tonnes of raw sewerage overflows into the Thames each year proving detrimental not only to the river’s aesthetics but also to its chemistry. When more than 2mm of rain falls on London, the sewerage system begins to overflow into the Thames through 37 emergency release valves. Originally built by Joseph Bazalgette during the Victorian era, London’s sewerage system was intended to cater for a population of 4millon rather than today’s 7-8 million. Unfortunately, although the city’s population has undergone a drastic transformation, the sewerage system at its heart has remained largely unaltered. Therefore, although the Thames has the potential to be a successful fish breeding ground, each sewerage overflow incident kills thousands of fish due to toxic pollution and a subsequent depletion of oxygen in the river.

However, Thames Water has constructed a large-scale hard engineering solution to tackle the sewerage overflow spilling into the Thames each week. The ‘London Tideway Improvements Programme’ incorporates three phases:

  1. Construction of the ‘Lee Tunnel’, capturing 16million tonnes of sewerage each year
  2. An increase in efficiency and capacity of numerous sewerage treatment works
  3. A controversial construction of the 20mile ‘Thames Tunnel ’ to tackle the 34 most polluting overflows creating a “cleaner and healthier river Thames” (Roberts, 2012).

The proposed route of the Thames Tunnel

With numerous environmental groups backing the scheme we may assume this is the perfect project- surely everyone wants a sparkling Thames? However, the second phase of public consultations which ended last week debated whether the tunnel is worth the £4.1 billion and years of disruption for those living near the proposed construction sites. During BBC Radio 4’s‘Costing the Earth’, Professor Roberts interviews local residents who run the “Save Your Riverside” campaign and claim a 7 year-long construction site outside their homes prevents them from selling their houses, reduces their value and poses a threat to local businesses. This decrease in the local economy is combined with a proposed increase of £70-80 water bills to ironically fund the tunnel construction which has the potential to cause so much upset.

Riverside Primary School present their petition

These economic issues are coupled with numerous social injustices such as 24 hour incessant noise pollution, some of which falls feet in front of homes. One resident raises concern for the local primary school asking “what will this do to our local children?” (Roberts, 2012) as the site demands 90lorries per day travelling in front of the building. As a result, Riverside Primary School presented a petition against the use of land near their building as a drive site for the Tunnel,receiving 2,000 signatures on the grounds of safety and disruption to learning.

But is this 20 mile super sewer the only viable solution? Many believe there are more environmentally friendly and socially just solutions that could be implemented but have been dismissed by the government. Does a 20 mile concrete tunnel not suggest a worryingly 19th Century approach to environmental issues whereby the government’s love for a big and beautiful legacy surpasses the possibility of a more eco-friendly solution? Such a large-scale solution is comparable to the Three Gorges Dam project, China whereby the government masks a human induced environmental issue with a large-scale hard engineering project. Here, the dam is not only an environmental solution, but a legacy in its own right by acting as a continuous symbolism of presidential power and influence regardless of its social impact.

If there is one thing all players can agree on, everyone wants a cleaner Thames. However, we must consider whether the proposed vast social and economic costs of the tunnel really worth it. It is imperative therefore to contemplate not only alternative, eco-friendly solutions for the Thames, but also why these possible solutions being ignored.


BBC News,(2011)Thames Tunnel Plan ‘Should be Reviewed’, Available: Last Accessed 28/02/2012

Roberts, A. (2012) The Thames Tunnel, ‘Costing the Earth’, BBC Radio 4, Last Broadcast Wed 22 Feb 2012 21:00

Tilt, B. et al. (2008) Social impacts of large dam projects: A comparison of international case studies and implications for best practice, Journal of Environmental Management

Thames Water (2012), Thames Tunnel Project, Available At: Last Accessed 28/02/2012

Photograph Sources:

Sewerage Vale: Last Accessed 28/02/2012

Thames Tunnel Route: Last Accessed 28/02/2012

Riverside Primary School Petition: Last Accessed 28/02/2012