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Climate change - a community centred approach

Volume 5 Number 1 - April 2008
The Green Belt Movement (GBM)

French title: Changement climatique une approche communautaire

Spanish title: Cambio Climatico y propuestas comunitarias


It is estimated that deforestation causes 24% of all CO2 emissions, contributing more to global emissions than the transport sector. Planting trees is a cost effective way to redress this imbalance, and the Green Belt Movement (GBM) recognises the potential of the carbon market to meet this challenge. Climate change is not just a challenge for environmentalists and botanists; it highlights the linkage between environment and poverty, and the urgency of addressing these issues together. For 30 years GBM has taken a holistic and grass roots approach to tackling the underlying causes of poverty and environmental degradation. This internationally recognised model for development is now used in carbon offsetting projects. Today, forest cover in Kenya represents only 2% of total land cover. By planting 5 billion trees over the next 50 years forest cover could return to 10%. This article describes how GBM projects focusing on indigenous tree species restore and protect Kenya’s standing forests, whilst simultaneously improving livelihoods.


GBM was founded in Kenya over 30 years ago by Wangari Maathai in response to group discussions she held with rural women leading up to the first international UN conference on women. It emerged that they were struggling to provide for their families basic needs, such as clean drinking water, fuel wood, a sustainable income, and a healthy environment. This echoed what Wangari Maathai has seen on field trips into rural areas in Kenya as a university researcher. The root of these problems lay in environmental degradation, namely deforestation and soil erosion. GBM was created to address the serious problems with a simple solution: working with communities to plant trees.

GBM’s philosophy and approach are based on the premise that sustainable development can only take place through recognizing the link between the environment, democracy and peace. As a result of our programmes, 40 million trees have been planted, hundreds of thousands of women in rural Kenya have lifted themselves out of poverty, soil erosion has been reduced in critical watersheds, and thousands of acres of biologically rich forests have been restored or protected. It was in recognition of this holistic approach to sustainable development that, in 2004, Wangari Maathai became the first environmentalist and African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Climate change: a pressing issue for Africa

Climate change threatens the basic elements of life - access to water, food production and health care (Stern, 2006). However, global impacts are unjust in their distribution. While the carbon emissions of countries in the South tend be negligible, because of their limited economic resources and adaptive capacity, they are hit the hardest. It is time developed economies recognise their responsibility and moral obligation, and assist poorer countries to reduce their vulnerability.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in parts of Africa temperatures have risen twice as fast as in the rest of the world. Africa’s poor and vulnerable will be particularly at risk; the effects are already visible in Kenya where droughts have increased fourfold in the past twenty years (Christian Aid, 2006). Health implications are a major concern, as shifting rainfall patterns are expected to introduce malaria into the Kenyan highlands which, until 20 years ago, was malaria free (Chen, et al., 2006). For Kenya, and much of the global South, addressing climate change is not a luxury; it is an issue of life and death.

Protection and restoration of forests

Greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation are estimated to represent more than 18% of current global emissions (see figure 1). Tropical deforestation has a particularly strong effect because tropical forests typically hold around 50% more carbon per hectare than other forests (Houghton, 2005). Today, forest cover in Kenya represents only 2% total land cover, a significant decrease since the 30% cover at the beginning of 20th Century; and far below the UN recommended goal of 10% for sustainable development. Action to protect the remaining areas of natural forest is clearly an issue of urgency and, as GBM proves, one does not need much money or expertise to plant trees; only community mobilisation to plant and nurture them.

Figure 1. Adapted from Stern Review, 2006.

Figure 1. Adapted from Stern Review, 2006.

The opportunities of carbon offsetting

Carbon offsetting means calculating everyday emissions and then paying someone to reduce the carbon dioxide by an equivalent amount. Investment in carbon markets at present takes place mainly through two mechanisms

  1. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) - governed by the Kyoto Protocol.
  2. The voluntary market – separate from the Kyoto Protocol; it refers to voluntary acts by individuals or companies.

This simple principle however has been the subject of controversy. There are concerns that offsetting is a way to ease the polluter’s conscience, providing an excuse to continue energy consumption as usual. Furthermore, problems exist over the permanence of carbon sequestered, as there is no guarantee of tree survival. GBM shares many of these concerns and aims to meet them by working only with partners committed to making long term behavioural changes in carbon consumption, and by planting trees in areas that will create self-sustaining forestry systems.

The carbon offsetting market presents a first attempt, in global monetary terms, to recognise the value of environmental resources in the form of carbon. From an African perspective, being part of a global attempt to address climate change is an issue of global justice and equity; especially as Africa will be adversely affected. The volume of private finance flowing through the voluntary market has increased significantly, with an eight-fold rise between 2004 and 2005 alone, the majority of which is invested in forestry programmes (Brown et al., 2006). GBM shares many of these concerns and aims to meet them by working only with partners who are already working on reducing their carbon emissions and acknowledge tree planting as a way to offset what is ‘over and above’ their commitments. Many of these partners are also committed to making long-term behavioural changes in carbon consumption, and opt for tree planting in areas which will create self-sustaining forestry systems.

Lessons learned

The problems that GBM addresses are not unique to Kenya; they can be found in communities around the globe, especially in those with degraded lands. GBM has created what we believe to be an African solution to a global problem. This section aims to share the key ideas behind our approach.

Addressing poverty

Broadly speaking, GBM takes a holistic approach to climate change for the following reason: the challenge is not just scientific in nature, it is far more complicated. The intrinsic link between poverty and environmental degradation creates a vicious cycle whereby one causes the other. For example, communities lacking income sources are forced to cut down forests to sell timber. Yet continued deforestation depletes their income sources and exacerbates poverty. Environmental conservation goes hand in hand with poverty alleviation. GBM tree planting activities offer communities an alternative livelihood to deforestation, therefore breaking the vicious cycle and addressing climate change in the long term.

Our projects follow a tested ten-step approach, beginning with the voluntary organisation of communities into networks (usually women), and culminating in compensation of seedlings by GBM after verification of survival. The income generated supports these communities and the restored forests offer better access to basic resources such as food and building materials.

GBM’s holistic approach to sustainable development recognises that equitable distribution and good governance of resources are one of the foundations for peace. As Wangari Maathai explained during her Nobel Peace Prize Speech, ‘A degraded environment leads to a scramble for scarce resources and may culminate in poverty and even conflict’ (2004). In 1992 GBM responded by establishing civic education and advocacy projects. So far 10,000 local people have attended seminars under the initiative and, after recognising this link, have started to participate in the political process and demand better governance.

Community involvement

To address deforestation it is necessary to understand why it is happening. Looking to local communities for the answers ensures the appropriateness and, ultimately, success of a project. Yet too often development projects are based on assumptions made on local people’s behalf, failing to address community felt needs. In contrast, GBM projects and policies are shaped and led by local communities from the planning to the implementation phases. Our use of indigenous plant species to preserve biological diversity, depending on the purpose, is testament to GBM’s commitment to local approaches with a view to a long-term solution.


The ultimate goal is for reforestation to become an intrinsic part of Kenyan society, and so far progress is encouraging. With the acquired knowledge of tree planting and the incentives associated with livelihood improvement, members continue to protect their forests to meet their own needs. The product is a self-sustaining forestry system which does not depend on continued outside support for survival.

The future of carbon offsetting at GBM

The urgency of climate change is conclusive, and carbon sequestration through forestry projects offers a potential mechanism for reducing emissions. GBM believes there is an opportunity to create a fair-trade carbon market which mobilises and empowers communities to improve their livelihoods using tree planting as an entry point while at the same time creating carbon sinks. Our long-term vision is to plant 5 billion trees in Kenya over the next 50 years; returning forest cover to 10%. With our experience and growing profile, GBM is well-positioned to engage greater numbers of people with our development model at grassroots levels in Africa and beyond.



Il est estimé que la déforestation cause 24% de toutes les émissions de CO2, soit plus que la contribution du secteur du transport à l’émission globale. La plantation d’arbres est un moyen rentable de redresser le déséquilibre, et le Green Belt Movement (GBM) reconnaît le potentiel offert par le marché du carbone pour faire face à ce défi. Le changement climatique n’est pas seulement un défi pour les environnementalistes et les botanistes, il souligne le lien entre environnement et pauvreté, et l’urgence de s’attaquer à ces problèmes sans les dissocier. Depuis 30 ans le GBM a choisi une approche holistique et locale pour enrayer les causes sous-jacentes de la pauvreté et de la dégradation de l’environnement. Ce modèle en faveur du développement, reconnu internationalement, est maintenant utilisé dans les projets de compensation carbone. Actuellement, la forêt au Kenya représente seulement 2% de la couverture totale du pays. En plantant 5 milliards d’arbres dans les 50 prochaines années, la couverture forestière pourrait retrouver son taux de 10%. Cet article décrit comment les projets du GBM, ciblés sur des espèces indigènes d’arbres, restaurent et protègent les forêts en place au Kenya tout en améliorant simultanément les moyens d’existence de la population.


Se estima que la deforestación causa el 24% de todas las emisiones de CO2, contribuyendo más a las emisiones globales que el sector transporte. Plantar árboles es una forma efectiva de corregir este desbalance, y el movimiento cinturón verde (GBM) reconoce el potencial del mercado del carbón para alcanzar este reto.

Cambio climático no solamente es para ambientalistas y botánicos, este remarca el enlace entre medio ambiente y pobreza, y la urgencia de dirigir estos temas juntos. Por 30 años GBM ha tomado una visión holistica para atacar las principales causas de pobreza y degradación ambiental. Este modelo internacionalmente reconocido de modelo para el desarrollo es ahora usado en proyectos para disminución de las emisiones de carbono.

Hoy, la cubierta del bosque en Kenia representa únicamente el 2% del bosque total de la cubierta de la tierra. Plantando 5 billones de árboles en los próximos 50 años, la cubierta podría incrementar al 10%. Este artículo describe como los proyectos del GBM se enfocan a las especies de árboles nativas para restaurar y proteger los bosques de Kenia, mientras simultáneamente se mejorar los alrededores.

Green Belt Movement International
Europe Office
Development House
56-64 Leonard Street
London, United Kingdom

For more information contact Francesca de Gasparis (Development Manager) and Emily Woodhouse (Administrator)