Wangari Maathai. Photo: UNPhoto
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“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.”
Born in 1940 and raised in rural Kenya, Maathai was fortunate to get an education. At the age of 20, she crossed the Atlantic to take bachelor and master of science degrees in biology in the United States. Hard work and diligence resulted in her becoming the first Kenyan woman to earn a doctoral degree and be appointed a university professor, but her engagement was always distinguished by her connection to rural life and her endless faith in ordinary people.
Maathai played an active role in Kenya’s struggle for democracy through her support for the opposition to Daniel arap Moi’s regime. Her activism took many forms, from hunger strikes and supporting political prisoners to empowering women to shape their own lives. But the regime’s authoritarian rule landed Maathai behind bars on innumerable occasions. She was considered insubordinate at a time when insubordination was not tolerated.
On World Environment Day 1977, Maathai symbolically planted nine trees in response to widespread deforestation in Kenya. Rural women were reporting dried-up river beds, dwindling food supplies and longer distances to fetch wood. Planting trees became the solution to these problems. Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, which rapidly spread beyond Kenya’s borders as more women joined in. To date, the organisation has planted more than 40 million trees.
Maathai succeeded in mobilising rural African women while focusing on sustainable development. With her ability to see the bigger world picture before taking a spade in her own hands, she viewed planting trees in a broader perspective that included democracy, women’s rights and international solidarity. As the Nobel Committee noted, “She thinks globally and acts locally.”
In addition to her lifelong grassroots engagement, Maathai was appointed to a number coveted positions in a range of organisations around the world. This began with the National Council of Women in Kenya, in which she was elected as Chair in 1981 after many years of active service. She also served on governing boards such as the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament and the Women and Environment Development Organisation. Her important work in these positions, combined with her unique charisma and dedication, led to the UN Secretary-General naming her a UN Messenger of Peace in 2009.
Besides her engagement drawing on a global and local perspective, Maathai also pursued her issues at national level. In connection with the appointment of a new president in Kenya in 2003, Maathai was elected to parliament with an overwhelming 98 per cent of the vote, and was appointed Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources.
Around the same time, over a crackly telephone line, she received the news that she had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This was a unique, and not wholly uncontroversial, awarding of the Peace Prize and was the first in a series of Peace Prizes highlighting the significance of the environment in preventing conflict and enhancing global security.
Together with five other women Peace Laureates, Maathai founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative in 2006 with the aim of sharing their experiences in a united effort for peace with justice and equality. The initiative supports women’s rights and empowers women in their fight to improve their lives. Once again, the link between the bigger world picture and ordinary people was brought into the spotlight. Until her death in 2011, Wangari Maathai championed the belief that the actions and efforts of each individual can create change and have an impact in this world.
“It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.”
Written by Moa Haeggblom