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INDEPENDENT LENS: Taking Root: The Vision Of Wangari Maathai

Airs Sunday, January 8, 2012 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

Credit: Courtesy of Lisa Merton/ITVS

Above: "Taking Root" follows Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai (pictured) in her quest to reclaim her land and her culture through the disarmingly simple act of planting trees. This direct action has fostered community solidarity, environmental literacy and political resolve that helped to bring down Kenya's 24-year dictatorship.

Planting trees for fuel, food and timber is not what one usually associates with winning a Nobel Peace Prize. Yet with that simple act, Wangari Maathai helped spark a movement to reclaim Kenya’s land from a century of deforestation while providing new sources of livelihood to rural communities.The tree-planting groups that formed gave the women a reason to come together and become involved in resolving their communities' challenges.

The Words of Wangari Maathai

"I found myself not just a woman wanting to plant trees to provide food and firewood. I found myself a woman fighting for justice, a woman fighting for equity. I started planting trees and found myself in the forefront of fighting for the restoration of democracy in my country." —from a 2005 presentation at Northwestern University

"Taking Root: The Vision Of Wangari Maathai" tells the story of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, a grassroots organization encouraging rural women and families to plant trees in community groups, and follows Maathai, the movement’s founder and the first environmentalist and African woman to win the Nobel Prize.

Maathai discovered her life's work by reconnecting with the rural women with whom she had grown up. They told her they were walking long distances for firewood, and that clean water was scarce. The soil was disappearing from their fields and their children were suffering from malnutrition. “Well, why not plant trees?” she suggested.

Maathai soon discovered that tree planting had a ripple effect of empowering change. In the mid-1980s, Kenya was under the repressive regime of Daniel arap Moi, whose dictatorship outlawed group gatherings and the right of association.

In tending their nurseries, women had a legitimate reason to gather outside their homes and discuss the roots of their problems. They soon found themselves working against deforestation, poverty, ignorance, embedded economic interests and government corruption; they became a national political force that helped to bring down the country’s 24-year dictatorship.

Using archival footage and first-person accounts, the film documents dramatic political confrontations of 1980s and 1990s Kenya and captures Maathai's infectious determination and unwavering courage through in-depth conversations with the film’s subjects. "Taking Root" captures a world view in which nothing is perceived as impossible.

The film also presents an awe-inspiring profile of one woman's three-decade journey of courage to protect the environment, ensure gender equality, defend human rights and promote democracy—all sprouting from the achievable act of planting trees.

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Trailer: Taking Root: The Vision Of Wangari Maathai

Video Excerpt: Taking Root: The Vision Of Wangari Maathai

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