Environmental Visionary Dies
Wangari Maathai, a human rights advocate and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, started a movement to plant more than 30 million trees and generate nearly 1 million jobs.
By Rachel Nuwer, September 26, 2011
Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for promoting environmental and economic wellbeing and women’s rights, died September 25 2011 from ovarian cancer, The New York Times reported. She was 71 years old.
Maathai touched innumerable lives around the world. In 1977 she founded the Green Belt Movement in her native Kenya, aiming to plant trees across the country to battle erosion, provide jobs for women, and firewood for fuel. Her Movement enriched Africa with more than 30 million trees and aided around 900,000 poor women by paying them a few shillings to plant trees.
Maathai’s groundbreaking work inspired similar efforts in other African countries. In 2004, Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace,” according to the Nobel committee.
Born on April 1, 1940 in the rural foothills of Mount Kenya, Maathai credits her early encounters with nature as her inspiration. After earning a scholarship-supported biology degree at Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas in 1964, Maathai completed a master’s of science at the University of Pittsburgh. When she attained a doctorate in veterinary anatomy from the University of Nairobi, Maathai became the first woman in East or Central Africa to hold such a degree. In the 1970s she taught at the university and became chairwoman of its veterinary anatomy department. Maathai also toured the world, becoming an early spokeswoman for the connection between environmental degradation and poverty.
Things were not easy for the outspoken Maathai. Described as “subversive” by the Kenyan government in the 1980s, Maathai was beaten unconscious and tear-gassed by the police during protests as recently as 2008. Her husband divorced her on the grounds that she was too strong-minded for a woman, and when she criticized the judge after losing her divorce case, she was thrown in jail.
“Wangari overcame incredible obstacles to devote her life to service,” said former Vice President Al Gore in a statement on the Green Belt Movement’s website. “As the first environmentalist and first African woman to earn the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari served as a true inspiration to us all.”
“Dr. Maathai was a tireless advocate for the environment, for women and for all those in the developing world who are unable to realize their potential,” said US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who considered Maathai a friend and inspiration. She “helped give ordinary citizens a voice,” Clinton said, and though “her death has left a gaping hole among the ranks of women leaders, she leaves behind a solid foundation for others to build upon.”Maathai is survived by three children and a granddaughter.
Source: The Scientist
Green Belt Movement tree nursery in Tumutumu Hills, Kenya.
A film was made about her work: “Taking Root”
Taking Root tells the dramatic story of Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai whose simple act of planting trees grew into a nationwide movement to safeguard the environment, protect human rights, and defend democracy—a movement for which this charismatic woman became an iconic inspiration.
A seemingly innocuous idea, Maathai soon discovered that tree planting had a ripple effect of empowering change. In the mid 1980s, Kenya was under the repressive regime of Daniel arap Moi under whose dictatorship group gatherings were outlawed. In tending their nurseries women had a legitimate reason to gather outside their homes and discuss the roots of their problems. These grassroots women soon found themselves working successively against deforestation, poverty, ignorance, embedded economic interests, and political oppression, until they became a national political force.
As the trees and the Green Belt Movement grew, a spirit of hope and confidence also grew in ordinary citizens – especially in women – only to be met with violent opposition from the government. Maathai and her colleagues soon found themselves victims of President Moi’s political oppression. In response, Maathai’s political activism only grew. At great risk she lead numerous confrontations in defense of the environment and social justice each of which brought her country closer to democracy.
And the trees continue to grow. Today there are more than 6,000 Green Belt nurseries throughout Kenya that generate income for 150,000 people, and thirty-five million trees have deeply altered the physical and social landscape of the country. The Green Belt Movement has also started programs teaching women about indigenous foods, income generating activities, AIDS, and self-empowerment. Through cinema verité footage of the tree nurseries and the women and children who tend them, TAKING ROOT brings to life the confidence and joy of people working to improve their own lives while also ensuring the future and vitality of their land.