The Green Belt Movement defends the Karura Forest in Nairobi, Kenya, 1998-1999


To protect the Karura forest from development, and reclaim the lands cleared for development before the start of the campaign.

Time period

28 September, 1998 to 16 August, 1999



Location City/State/Province

Jump to case narrative


Wangari Maathai


The Green Belt Movement, United Nations Environmental Programme, Kenya Human Rights Commission, Friends of the Forest, Opposition members of Parliament

External allies

U.S. Ambassador

Involvement of social elites

Opposition Members of Parliament


Police, Developers, Kenyan Government

Nonviolent responses of opponent

Not Known

Campaigner violence

Students of the University on Nairobi rioted independently of the Green Belt Movement's campaign.

Repressive Violence

Private security guards beat Green Belt Movement members for planting trees, and police beat University students as they attempted to force their way through the forest gate.





Group characterization


Groups in 1st Segment

The Green Belt Movement (ecologists)

Groups in 2nd Segment

International Observers and Human rights groups
United Nations Environment Programme

Segment Length

2 months

Success in achieving specific demands/goals

6 out of 6 points


1 out of 1 points


3 out of 3 points

Total points

10 out of 10 points

Database Narrative

The Karura forest is an urban 2500 acre forest in Nairobi.
The Kenyan government had a common practice of land grabbing or secretly
selling public lands to private companies and political allies. Wangari
Maathai, who later was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, mobilized the
Green Belt Movement to action when developers began to clear sections of the
Karura forest to build luxury homes and offices for political allies of the
government in 1998.

On 28 September, Wangari Maathai wrote a letter to the attorney
general asking to halt destruction of the Karura forest and notified the press.
The Daily Nation newspaper hired a
helicopter to take aerial photographs of the cleared sections of the forest,
and published them on the front page.

Wangari Maathai and her organization, the Green Belt
Movement, stated to the government that they planned to reclaim the lost forest
by planting trees. On their first visit to the forest, they arrived at a
construction site where they found tractors, housing for construction workers,
and a group of young men. When they began planting trees the group of young
men attacked them with machetes and uprooted all the trees the Green Belt
Movement had planted. Construction workers arrived at the scene and saved the
Green Belt Movement demonstrators from harm. 

Green Belt Movement members continued to visit the Karura
forest inviting the press to join them and established a tree nursery inside
the forest. They sometimes succeeded in persuading construction workers to let
them plant trees after explaining the environmental importance of the forest
and that it was being destroyed so the wealthy could live there; the
construction workers were victims, too.

On 7 October, Green Belt Movement members returned to the
construction site with members of the press to plant trees, and burned the
construction equipment at construction worker housing. No one was hurt.

The Green Belt Movement announced plans to return to the
forest on 17 October to water the seedlings in the nursery they established,
but were denied access by police. A fence had been erected around the forest
with a sign reading “Private Property.” Police guarded every entrance. Green
Belt Movement demonstrators entered the forest through the unguarded marsh at
the north of the forest. The police escorted the demonstrators out of the
forest allowing Wangari Maathai to finish watering the trees in the nursery.

The campaign to protect the Karura garnered international
attention and received the support of the United Nations Environment Programme.
On 5 December the Green Belt Movement invited delegates from Europe, Africa
and the Americas attending the Euro-African Green Conference in Nairobi to
visit their nursery in the Karura forest and plant trees there. They gave
notice of their visit to the police who met but did not stop the demonstrators.

The government then told those it sold land to that they
were responsible for the security of their plots. Cautious of confrontations
with armed guards, the Green Belt Movement decided not to attempt to enter the
forest, but to plant symbolic trees at the gate on 8 January 1999. Green Belt
Movement members were accompanied by journalists, Parliament members,
international observers, members of human rights watch organizations, and
affiliated organizations. 

200 guards armed with machetes, whips, pangas, and
bows and arrows attacked the demonstrators and observers when they planted
trees at the gate. Green Belt Movement members instructed the group to run from
violent confrontations. The guards did not follow, but Wangari Maathai and
observers were injured, many suffering broken limbs. No one was killed. 

police made no arrests, arguing that the demonstrators had entered private
property. It was reported that the police conversed with the guards before the

The attack was condemned by the U.S. ambassador, Kenyan clergy,
opposition members of Parliament, the press, and the United Nations. The
president countered that development of the Karura forest was the way of the
future, as the rest of Nairobi had been built on cleared forest. 

Outrage over the 8 January attack provoked students at the
University of Nairobi to protest independently of the Green Belt Movement.
Students rammed the gate to the Karura forest with a tractor, and were beaten by
police even after fleeing to the United Nations Enviromental Programme
headquarters. Two students were hospitalized with serious injuries. The next
day students rioted shutting down the University.

Green Belt Movement members continued to visit the Karura
forest to plant trees. On 16 August 1999 the President banned the allocation of
public land. Development in the forest ceased and the security guards were removed.
Logging of the forest continued until a new government was elected in 2002, and
a partnership was made to restore the Karura Forest.


Earlier campaigns by Wangari Maathai: the protest against the Times Tower Complex to be built in Uhuru park (which did not use Nonviolent Direct Action), and the campaign to release political prisoners (see Kenyan mothers win release of political prisoners and press for democratic reform, 1992-1993)


"Conservationists, MPs set fire to forest in protest at land misuse." BBC Summary of World Broadcasts. (October 9, 1998 , Friday ): 127 words. LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2013/03/14.

"Kenya; Karura: On Whose Side Is The Government?." Africa News. (January 10, 1999 ): 379 words. LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2013/03/14.

"ENVIRONMENT-KENYA: U.N. CHIEF CONDEMNS ASSAULT ON ECOLOGIST." IPS-Inter Press Service. (January 11, 1999 , Monday ): 716 words. LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2013/03/14.

Maathai, Wangari. Unbowed. New York: Random House, Inc. 2006. p. 261-272.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy

Jonathan White, 14/03/2013