Tribute to Wangari Maathai

African Update – 26/10/11

On September 25, 2011, Wangari Maathai died in Nairobi. Lisa Butenhoff brings as this tribute and summarizes her achievements.

On September 25, 2011, Wangari Maathai, Kenyan environmental and human rights activist and founder of the Green Belt Movement, died in Nairobi. She leaves behind a flourishing legacy that continues to inspire people around the world to see the linkages between the environment, women’s rights, good governance, peace and equitable prosperity.

Born in 1940 into a rural family in Kenya’s central highlands, Maathai excelled in school, winning her a place at a high school for girls and later, a scholarship to study in the United States. There she eventually obtained a master’s degree in Biology at the Univeristy of Pittsburg, where she witnessed the budding American environmental movement first hand. In 1971 she received her PhD in Anatomy, becoming the first East African woman to receive a doctorate.

As a member of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK), Maathai first proposed tree planting as a way to combat unemployment and stop environmental degradation resulting from overplanting, collection of firewood and erosion. In 1977, she founded the Green Belt movement.

Maathai served as chairwoman of the NCWK from 1980-1987 and helped the organization to focus on rural livelihoods for women through the Green Belt Movement’s tree planting efforts. What began as a humble tree planting in a park in Nairobi, soon blossomed. Nurseries were planted throughout the country, particularly in critical watersheds around the mountains of Kenya. Women were hired to tend and plant the trees.

Gradually, public momentum picked up behind the Green Belt Movement. Grassroots movements and donor organizations, working across the continent, were eager to try Maathai’s approach in other countries. In 1986, a pan-Africa Green Belt Movement was launched with the participation of 15 additional African countries. To date the movement has succeeded in planting 45 million trees across Africa.

Maathai was a fervent democratic advocate who was politically active throughout Kenya’s democratic transitions in the 1980s and 1990s. Her activism against discrimination of women in the workplace, seizure of public lands and unfair elections, elicited the ire of the Kenya Africa National Union Party. She was arrested several times for her support of Kenyan opposition parties and efforts to protect public lands. She was elected to Parliament in 2002, where she served as a delegate from 2002-2007 and also served as Assistant to the Minister of Environment and Natural Resurces from 2003-2005.

While Wangari Maathai’s list of accolades and awards stretches on and on, she is best known internationally for winning the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”, becoming the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize. She is also one of just over 40 women to win the prize (out of a total of 776 prizes awarded since 1901). 

Less than two weeks after her death, three more women, among them Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Maathai’s work continues to bear fruit. The Plant for the Planet Billion Tree Campaign, sponsored by the United Nations Environmental Program aims to plant 1 billion trees each year worldwide and the Green Belt Movement has created offshoots internationally. Maathai believed that, “In a few decades, the relationship between the environment, resources and conflict may seem almost as obvious as the connection we see today between human rights, democracy and peace. “ It’s up to us now, her students, not to leave her vision untended.

Wangari Maathai Quotes:

 “We have come a long way from ignorance to deep insight, from fear to courage and from the streets to Parliament. We moved from self to others, from ‘my issue’ to ‘our issues’, from home to communities, from national level to global. Now we embrace the concepts of our common home and future.” At a political forum during the climax of political multipartyism in Kenya, 1992

"In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other."
From Wangari Maathai's Nobel Lecture, delivered in Oslo, 10 December 2004.

"It is wonderful when you don't have the fear, and a lot of the time I don't ... I focus on what needs to be done instead."
From the article "Planting the future", The Guardian, 16 February 2007.


The official site of the Green Belt Movement

Wangari Maathai on the Nobel Prize website

Billion Tree Campaign

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