“It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated. So we must stand up for what we believe in.” – Wangari Maathai
Wangari Maathai passed away on September 25, 2011 from ovarian cancer. She was 71.
Even the briefest glance at her illustrious life leads one to concur with UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner that “Wangari Maathai was a force of nature.” She was first woman to earn a PhD in East and Central Africa and the first environmentalist and African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. As the founder of the Green Belt Movement, which has successfully planted 35 million trees to date, she empowered rural African women to protect their environment and promote democracy.
For her activism and opposition to the corrupt government of former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi, Professor Maathai was beaten, jailed and targeted for assassination. None of this stopped the Green Belt Movement from thriving, with branches in more than 30 countries and 600 community groups maintaining 6,000 tree nurseries. The organization’s approach is to prevent environmental degradation through a transformation of social consciousness: communities receive education that helps them become self-sufficient and gain an awareness of human rights and the importance of good governance.
In her later years, Prof. Maathai was elected to parliament, gaining 98% of the vote. She served as Kenya’s Assistant Minster for Environment, Natural Resources, and Wildlife from 2003-2007. The Green Belt Movement continues her work and has established amemorial fund in her name to this end.
Wangari Maathai’s life is the story of a stubborn refusal to yield to corrupt authority and a brave push towards community empowerment and self-sufficiency in the face of great adversity. She has left us with a legacy that will inspire new generations of world-changers.
Photo by Ricardo Medina (www.mifotografia.com)