Dr. Wangari Maathai was an activist from the African nation of Kenya who used her political power, education and fierce fighting spirit to preserve the purity of her native environment, while implementing sustainable measures in a way that uplifted women. For these grand achievements, Maathai was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2004, becoming the first African woman to win this prize in a moment of pride that inspired the entire continent. She succumbed to cancer late Sunday, leaving as her legacy the reminder that impoverished people and environmental vulnerability are inextricably linked in Africa, and that both needy entities are worth fighting for. Her life is a testimony to the fact that rapid growth in developing countries does not require the destruction of its lands through the rapacious stripping of resources fueled by greed.
Maathai’s work demonstrated that preserving the environment and developing depressed areas economically can and should go hand in hand for the overall betterment of society. And she was not afraid to get tear gassed or beaten by police while demonstrating to preserve the rights of citizens and the sustainability of their lands. She waged her many political battles through the influential organization she founded, The Greenbelt Movement.
Dr. Maathai started The Greenbelt Movement in 1977 to promote her ideals and in the process her organization facilitated the planting of 45 million trees in her native Kenya. Although much of her work focused on her homeland, Maathai’s ideas have spread internationally, leading to the launch of similar programs across the African continent.
Through attaining her PhD — a first for a woman from east and central Africa — Dr. Maathai gained access to European spheres of influence, which enabled her to join powerful organizations like The United Nations Environmental Program. These ties gave her the prestige to promote her Greenbelt Movement, which “went pan-African in 1986, with successful offshoots in at least six African countries,” according to AllAfrica.com.
The importance of The Greenbelt Movement is twofold, because rapid deforestation due to overdevelopment was not only leading to permanent desertification in Kenya; it was also deepening the cycle of poverty caused by the poor degrading the lands by mistreatment in order to survive — while simultaneous diminishing this fragile source of livelihood. Maathai’s Greenbelt Movement both preserved the land from erosion, and gave people jobs planting trees (particularly women) that helped them lead better lives. The New York Times has more on this gentle revolutionary, who it deems an “environmentalist, feminist, politician, anti-corruption campaigner, human rights advocate, [and] protester”: