Hesperian Health Guides

Chapter 10: Forests

Every day 20,000 people visit the HealthWiki for lifesaving health information. A gift of just $5 helps make this possible!

Make a giftMake a gift to support this essential health information people depend on.

HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 10: Forests

A man lifts a child on his shoulder to pick fruit from a tree as a girl gathers branches and a woman cooks outside a house.

Forests provide essential resources such as food, firewood, building materials, fodder, medicines, and many other things. Trees and forests also play an important role in sustaining a healthy environment. They keep the air and water clean, prevent erosion and flooding, enrich soil, make homes for birds, animals, and plants, provide shade, and make our communities beautiful.

In order for forests to continue providing resources and sustaining a healthy environment, they must be well cared for, managed fairly, and used wisely. But because forest resources are valued by industries as well as by communities, and because the land under forests is sometimes wanted for other uses, forests around the world are being cleared faster than they can grow back. Sometimes logging companies or other industries that clear forests, such as mining, offer people sources of income they desperately need.

However, there is a balance to be found between the need to use land and resources, and the need to protect these resources for the future. Whenever too much of a resource is used, it causes far-reaching and long-lasting harm. Many communities that have lived off the forest for generations know that they will be seriously harmed if too much of the forest is used up or cleared.

The Green Belt Movement
Wangari Maathai, a woman from the East African country of Kenya, says Mount Kenya used to be a shy mountain, always hidden behind clouds. This mountain is sacred to her people because many rivers flow from the forests that once covered the mountain’s slopes. Now, Mount Kenya is no longer shy. The clouds that covered it are gone, and so are the forests. And with the loss of the forests and clouds, the rivers also have begun to dry up.

As she grew up, Wangari saw how deforestation led to soil erosion, loss of water sources, and a scarcity of firewood. She began to understand that deforestation caused poverty and drought. So Wangari began planting trees.

Wangari organized a group of women to plant trees around their homes and fields. Because they planted trees in rows or “belts,” they became known as the Green Belt Movement. The women of the Green Belt Movement began to teach other people how their lives were affected by deforestation and to plant trees with them. They brought fruit trees to farmers, and planted them on hillsides to prevent erosion. By planting trees in both cities and villages to create green spaces, give shade, and to provide firewood, they showed how planting trees could solve many problems. The Green Belt Movement also planted vegetable gardens, built small dams to capture rainwater, and held workshops to help people understand the need for healthy forests.

In taking responsibility for their environment, the Green Belt Movement realized they needed the support of their government to care for the environment for the good of all Kenyans. Planting trees became an expression of a movement for peace and democracy in Kenya. When conflicts arose between different communities, the Green Belt Movement used “peace trees” to help bring them together.

As a woman who planted trees, Wangari became a hero in her country. But she also faced many hardships. Unable to live with such a strong woman, her husband left her. Because she organized among the poor, her government arrested her. But because of her bravery, and the work of thousands of Kenyans, the Green Belt Movement succeeded in planting millions of trees.

In 2004, Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize, one of the most honored awards in the world. The prize was given to her for promoting peace through a sustainable development that includes democracy, human rights, and equality for women.
And it all started with planting trees.

A row of trees around a home.