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Wangari Maathai: Outspoken conservationist

Sophie Mbugua
March 6, 2020

The decision to award a conservationist with the Nobel Peace Prize came as a surprise in 2004. Yet it underlined the role of Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement in building a peaceful and self-sustained society.

DW African Roots | Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai: Outspoken conservationist

How was Wangari Maathai's early life?

Wangari Muta Maathai was born in 1940 in Tetu village in the central highlands of Kenya, about 160 kilometers (99 miles) from Kenya's capital city Nairobi. She was among 800 young Africans in the 1960's to study in the United States through the Kennedy Airlift scholarship program.

What were Wangari Maathai's achievements in academia?

She studied biological sciences in the USA, where she drew inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement. Further studies brought her back to Kenya and then to Germany. Maathai was the first woman from East and Central Africa to earn a doctoral degree; she went on to become the first woman associate professor in East and Central Africa. In 1976 Wangari Maathai became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi, where she took her post as associate professor the following year.

How was Wangari Maathai's Green Belt Movement born?

Maathai introduced the idea of community-based tree planting that she developed into a broad-based grassroots organization which she named the Green Belt Movement (GBM). The movement was founded in 1977, under the auspices of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK), as a response to the energy and water needs of rural women in Kenya. Over the years, Maathai's GBM has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya. Working at the grassroots, national, and international levels, the movement focuses on building climate resilience and empowering communities, especially women, to foster democratic space and sustainable livelihoods.

How did Wangari Maathai champion human rights?

Maathai is renowned for her fight against land grabbing and for protecting water catchment areas and green spaces in Kenya. In 1989, while Kenya was still under a one party rule led by then President Daniel arap Moi, she led a campaign against the construction of a 60-storey Kenya Times Media Trust business complex at Uhuru Park – a 13 hectare (130,000 square meter) public recreational park adjacent to the central business district of Nairobi.

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A decade later, she led a group of concerned citizens into a confrontation with thugs hired by corrupt developers who were trying to grab Karura Forest – an urban forest gazetted in 1932 located in the capital. Originally measuring 1,041hectares, the reserve has been reduced to 564 hectares due to developers' incursions according to a 2005 Kenyan report on illegal land allocations.

Wangari Maathai was also deeply engaged with the struggle for multi-party democracy in her home country. In 1992, the year of the first multi-party elections, Maathai took the lead of a group of defiant mothers who had been on a hunger strike at Uhuru Park in Nairobi. The women together with another political activism group known as Release Political Prisoners (RPP) were demanding the release of their sons confined in prison without trial for politically instigated accusations. The women stripped naked after security officers broke the protest. They remained defiant for almost 11 months after which the government backed down and released the political prisoners. That section of Uhuru Park was later named Freedom Corner to commemorate that incident.

After the introduction of multiparty democracy, the Green Belt Movement led by Maathai was instrumental in educating communities on good governance, fostering peace and protecting the environment.

How was Wangari Maathai honored for her work?

For her groundbreaking achievements, Wangari Maathai was awarded countless prizes, among them the Right Livelihood Award, the Goldman Environmental Prize, the Indira Ghandi Prize and the French Legion of Honor. In 2005, eleven heads of state in the Congo region appointed her the Goodwill Ambassador to the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem.

In 2004 she obtained one of the highest honors when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded her the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace in Kenya and in Africa.

Give me some of Wangari Maathai's memorable quotes!

"The generation that destroys the environment is not the generation that pays the price. That is the problem."

"Human rights are not things that are put on the table for people to enjoy. These are things you fight for and then you protect."
"Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and, in the process, heal our own - indeed to embrace the whole of creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come."
"I'm very conscious of the fact that you can't do it alone. It's teamwork. When you do it alone you run the risk that when you are no longer there nobody else will do it."

How is Wangari Maathai remembered?

Wangari Maathai died after a battle with ovarian cancer on 25 September 2011, aged 71.

In 2012, the African Union designated March 3, as Wangari Maathai Day. The day is observed in conjunction with Africa Environmental Day.

In 2016, the Nairobi County Government renamed Forest Road as Prof. Wangari Maathai Road 

The Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies (WMI) at the University of Nairobi was established to honor, recognize, celebrate, advance, and immortalize the ideals and works of Professor Wangari Maathai.

Scientific advice on this article was provided by historians Professor Doulaye Konaté, Lily Mafela, Ph.D., and Professor Christopher Ogbogbo. African Roots is supported by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.