The theme of World Environment Day this year is Ecosystem Restoration. It’s a worldwide push to promote biodiversity and healthy landscapes. And from Africa, there is a message of hope.

Through the AFR100 Initiative (1 among many environmental initiatives across the continent) over 30 African countries, including South Africa, are working together to conserve forests and grasslands, provide workers and farmers with sustainable and economically viable alternatives to destructive land use, and educate a new generation on taking care of the land and its people and animals together.

National Geographic (DStv channel 181) and National Geographic Wild (DStv channel 182) documentary The Grand African Green Up is a story told by Africans, about the work that they are doing to save the planet, from individuals to communities to governments. We spoke to the show’s narrator, Kenyan environmental activist Wanjira Mathai, about how Africa is going green.

“As I was reading (the script for the documentary), I would sometimes just imagine that I'm flying over these places, the most beautiful landscapes. That I'm seeing them. And it conjures in you just euphoria. I want people to feel that,” says Wanjira. “That they're going to be looking at breath-taking footage of 1 of the most beautiful places and continents in the world.”

“There's such a (negative) counter-narrative sometimes when we're talking about Africa. Yes, we are hopeful, because there's so much to be hopeful about. There's so much beauty. There's so much wonder. There's so much potential. And it's that potential, but also that sense of hope, that it can be better. I really wanted people to be carried by both the narrative, but also by the beauty of the place, the space and what they see,” says Wanjira.

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Meet Wanjira

The narration of The Grand African Green Up is sheer poetry, a beautiful match for the heart-soaring shots of African landscapes that open the documentary. Wanjira Mathai, the voice of that beauty, is the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) Vice President and Regional Director for Africa. She has also served as chair of WRI’s Global Restoration Council.

Wanjira has dedicated her life, practically from childhood, to environmental conservation and restoration in Kenya and across Africa. For her family, it’s been a labour of love, science, politics and determination that has, at times, had to overcome violent resistance.

Wanjira’s late mother Wangari Maathai, founder of Keyna’s Green Belt Movement in the 1970s, was the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, in recognition of her contributions to sustainable development, democracy and peace. Wanjira has described Wangari’s battle to save Nairobi’s green oasis, Karura Forest, from becoming a construction site in her TED Talk on uprooting corruption – 1 of the serious challenges to environmental work across the globe.

The Grand African Green Up is another step on that path. “I feel very privileged to even be able to say that, because I spent many years – almost a decade – working very closely with her. Working every day with her and witnessing the passion that she had for trees and for the environment. The understanding she had for just how crucial the environment is, for our sustainability and for our very survival,” says Wanjira.

“She was very clear that it was central. I remember times when she would tell me, ‘You know, the (government’s) budgets are out tomorrow, but I know that the Ministry Of Environment will not get a big budget. But the Ministry of Environment is the most important ministry out there! I wish they understood,’ she would say, ‘I wish they understood how important the Ministry of Environment is to everything!’ She was so clear that it was a joy to work with and watch her because she knew that 20 years later, 30 years later, 40 years later, we would now finally come to the realisation that what she was saying is true – that the environment is central to our very survival. So I got that instilled in me for a long time. I was part of that experience, even as a child. And then working with her, I just felt a sense of joy, but also responsibility to carry it on. It is such a poignant moment for the environment (now). She did so much and she believed so much in making it happen for the environment. It was really moving and motivating. So yeah, I feel fortunate to have been able to witness that and to have been able to learn from that, and then be able to say that I'm part of a big group of people who are carrying that legacy,” Wanjira adds proudly.

People have been asking (in the past), ‘Do we choose the economy, or do we choose the environment?

Environment first

Through Wanjira’s lifetime she’s slowly seen peoples’ and governments' attitudes to conservation and the environment change, despite some catastrophically destructive plundering from certain industries and politicians.

“People have been asking (in the past), ‘Do we choose the economy, or do we choose the environment? I don't know how many people will still be asking that question generally, because we now know that the environment and the economy are inextricably linked. You don't have to choose 1 over the other. Economies the world over are now realising natural capital. The language is shifting, because we've got to value the services we get from nature. If we don't take care of nature, everything else is a non-starter. Look at the situation we're in with COVID-19, a zoonotic disease that is a reflection of our interference with nature. The rest stops. Economies crash. It's a totally false choice. Because we cannot build an economy without a strong environmental foundation. We know a healthy environment supports healthy people and healthy people drive the economy. Food systems, energy systems, and other services that the environment would otherwise protect, all depend on a healthy environment and a healthy ecosystem,” explains Wanjira.

AFR100

In The Grand African Green Up, we see this shift to governments’ commitment to the environment through its exploration of the work of AFR100. “This is the decade for ecosystem restoration. We have to turn things from small projects to scale. That's what makes AFR100 so remarkable,” says Wanjira. “You have an African led, government led, African Union sanctioned operation, that first raises ambition around restoring 100 million hectares of land. It proceeds to rally governments to commit to more than 120 million hectares. And now we move into the decade of action, we need to translate those commitments into action. The scale of it is exactly what's required. Something about it just sends chills down your spine. 31 countries and counting are all saying, ‘Yes, this is important in this decade. We have got to get it done.’”

Plant a tree, save a planet

Reducing these efforts to “planting trees in a desert” is an oversimplification of the work being done. But tree planting and saving forests from encroachment is a hugely important element of the initiative, as we see in The Grand African Green Up.

“On a very basic level, we know that trees sequester carbon. And 1 of the biggest things is that healthy ecosystems fight climate change, just by the fact that they absorb so much carbon from the atmosphere,” explains Wanjira. “The entire climate change discussion is about a very aggressive decarbonisation agenda. We have got to remove carbon from the atmosphere, and nothing does it better than trees. That is going to be the big story for this decade – the opportunity for landscape restoration. 30% of the climate solution will be solutions that come from nature. That's a huge contribution. And that tells you that we need nature for far more than just its own sheer beauty. It supports biodiversity as well.”

“We know that we need to have forests and ecosystems not only because they store so much carbon – we know the Congo forest, for example, stores 1.5 times more carbon than the United States emits every year – that is huge! So it is an absolute totally important agenda that we address the nature solution. But what I find even more compelling, is that not only is it important, it's also within our reach. It's not a technology that we have to develop. The brilliance of nature, it's there. It's there for us to leverage. And we then have to say, ‘Good, let's protect as much as we can. Let's prioritize this sequestration of carbon by nature, because it's the best possible technology out there’. It's something we can all do.”

Driving the green economy

The conversation around conservation isn’t about slapping people’s hands off nature, it’s about showing the incredible opportunities for local communities that lie in sustainable development and responsible stewardship of natural resources. “For Africa, the opportunity is great. We can engage young people. We have a very young continent – the average age of Africa today is 19 years old. I always get amazed when I hear that. (so we need to ask) What is the role of young people in the restoration movements? How can we turbo-charge the movement with young people getting into entrepreneurship?” Wanjira asks.

“We need to organise it, we need to fund it. We need resources and we need to mobilise capacity to make it happen. We especially have to create opportunities for youth, women, and those who have been most marginalised, most left out of our economies (the poor) to partake in this restoration movement because it creates economic opportunities. It creates jobs if entrepreneurs can create businesses around trees, because the scale of the work required is so massive. So I think this is a great opportunity for Africa to leverage this sector in creating and generating jobs and businesses.”

The Grand African Greenup takes us across the continent to meet people who are already answering that call. Wanjira’s organisation, the WRI, is 1 of those organisations featured. They’re hard at work linking hands and cash across the continent.

“For us at the World Resources Institute, landscape restoration is a massive priority here in Africa, in Latin America, and in Asia. We're across the board where we do our work, protecting as much of the integrity of ecosystems as possible,” says Wanjira. “One of the things that WRI does well, is to create tools and platforms. We develop sophisticated monitoring tools that could help governments understand how they're doing with respect to restoration. How goes the battle? Is it succeeding? Are we winning? This is an extremely important role in monitoring and developing monitoring systems around forest restoration and forest protection.”

“We have developed Global Forest Watch, and Open Timber Portal – tools that help us ensure the integrity of forests. And then we're also interested in ensuring we unlock the potential of young people and entrepreneurs in the sector of forests. And so we have the Land Accelerator, for example, where young people get involved in a program that helps them structure and understand how to run businesses and how to pitch for funding to expand their business.”

“We also are now starting to develop a body of work around implementers, because we are finding that we have these wonderful, ambitious goals, and we have these entrepreneurs, but the people who actually get the work done – the communities themselves that actually deliver the restoration – are often left behind, and the funding and resources don't always reach them. So we've created a platform called TerraMatch, that matches implementers to donors, and so that people can find projects they want to support. It's a matchmaking platform.”

“We're also developing a tool that helps those implementers become even more investor ready. So it's almost like an accelerator for implementers so that they can organise themselves and structure themselves in a way that makes them an attractive investment opportunity. Organisations like the Green Belt Movement and others that actually do the work on the ground are so good at what they do on the ground. But they don't always have their systems and structures in place. It's unfair to leave them out of the resourcing because that's where the action is. And that's what needs resourcing. So we’re trying to develop a program called the Landscape Academy that would help build their capacity to leverage even greater sources of funding.

My favourite tree

We took a moment from the serious discussion with Wanjira to look at 1 unspoken reason to preserve and grow trees – simply because we love them. “I have so many trees that I love, but I absolutely adore fig trees,” says Wanjira. “The Strangler Fig is a particularly beautiful tree. It is massive. It is beautiful in its majesty. It's a cathedral of a tree. I have so many wonderful stories my mother would tell me about growing up in the central part of Kenya where these trees were so plentiful. They were giants in the landscape. Her mother used to tell her all the time not to pick firewood from under the fig tree because it was a sacred tree, and it was revered by the community where my mother came from. She grew up as a child admiring and revering the fig tree. Every time I see them, you just see how majestic they are. They stood for years until they fell on their own, hundreds of years. They would always be massive. But what was remarkable about that indigenous knowledge and that cultural tradition, was that fig trees apparently have very deep roots that break into the underground aquifers. And wherever fig trees were found, there were often springs. So they were related with life and they had this sense of being the source of all things that are good. Here came the source of many rivers at the base of a fig tree. I thought that was magical. And so the fig tree remains in my mind as a very special tree,” says Wanjira.

The Big 5

Wanjira loved working on The Grand African Green Up and she gives us 5 reasons to tune in…

1: It’s a story of beauty. “We've got to counter the narrative about Africa. Very few people (globally) have ever experienced the beauty of Africa. This is a narrative that goes beyond Africa, and just in very powerful ways, demonstrates sheer beauty.”

2: It’s already working! “I think, for many people, how green it already is, is 1 that people will see but also the potential to even make that better. So we'll see some greenery, but we'll also see the potential for expansion. Some of the devastation that has happened, and some of the opportunities for restoration will be in full display.”

3: It’s about hope (something we desperately need among the current ecological warnings): “I also hope that people get out of it, a sense of hope. It is a poetic narrative, it's told in a way that speaks to the soul. So I hope people have a very deep connection to it, beyond just the sheer superficial narrative of it; that it speaks to a deeper place for people; that it addresses, and begins to change, people's mindset about what they think they know about Africa.”

4: It celebrates Africans leading conservation: “I hope out of this, people also get a sense of the talent that can be of Africans, for Africans, from Africa. There was such a collaborative effort with AFR100 to come up with a product that is world class, and I think that this does that.”

5: The revelation of how much work is being done in Africa to help the planet: “Just the sheer scale of what's needed to transform, and that it takes everybody, right? It's going to be youth engagement. There's livelihoods there, there's biodiversity, the animals, the birds...It is an all-of-society approach. We need everybody to make this greenup happen.”

Watch on Friday, 11 June on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) and National Geographic Wild (DStv channel 182) at 18:00.

National Geographic (DStv channel 181) is available on DStv Premium, Compact Plus, Compact and Family. National Geographic Wild (DStv channel 182) is available on DStv Premium, Compact Plus, Compact, Family and Access. 

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