An African Visionary

Dr. Wangari Maathai. Credit: Martin Rowe

Few environmental leaders have left behind a legacy like Dr. Wangari Maathai, the visionary founder of the Greenbelt Movement who passed away September 25 at age 71 in her home country of Kenya. The Green Belt Movement was born from a fairly straightforward concept—planting trees. Since Maathai founded the movement in 1977, more than 45 million trees have been planted across Kenya—plantings that have worked to reduce erosion and restore ecosystems so that crops might flourish again and precious water resources be retained. Tree plantings have specifically focused on five regions representing the “water towers” of Kenya—Mt. Kenya, Aberdares, Mau Complex, Mt. Elgon and Cherengani Hills—the water catchment areas that provide water for over 90% of Kenya’s population.

But Maathai had more in mind than improving the environment and public health by planting trees. She was planting a social revolution—empowering women and strengthening families by giving them control over their environments, lifelong skills in planting and cultivating trees and the realization that they can be instruments of change. As Maathai once said: “I placed my faith in the rural women of Kenya from the very beginning, and they have been key to the success of the Green Belt Movement.Through this very hands-on method of growing and planting trees, women have seen that they have real choices about whether they are going to sustain and restore the environment or destroy it. In the process of education that takes place when someone joins the Green Belt Movement, women have become aware that planting trees or fighting to save forests from being chopped down is part of a larger mission to create a society that respects democracy, decency, adherence to the rule of law, human rights, and the rights of women. Women also take on leadership roles, running nurseries, working with foresters, planning and implementing community-based projects for water harvesting and food security. All of these experiences contribute to their developing more confidence in themselves and more power over the direction of their lives.”

And Maathai did not shy away from the overtly political. She helped to free 51 political prisoners in Kenya after a year-long vigil she led with the prisoners’ mothers; she called for the end of abuses by Kenyan dictator Daniel arap Moi in the 1980s and ‘90s; and she acted as a mediator and peace negotiator during the violent uprisings following the contested 2007 Kenyan elections. For all of her work in sustainable development, democracy and peace-building, Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. The award only galvanized her further—to take a vocal stance against climate change, particularly by protecting forests worldwide, and to join the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2006 in planting a billion trees around the world. With that goal met in less tan a year, the target has since been raised to 14 billion, over 11 billion of which have been planted already

Achim Steiner, U.N. Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said in a statement: “Wangari Maathai was a force of nature. While others deployed their power and life force to damage, degrade and extract short term profit from the environment, she used hers to stand in their way, mobilize communities and to argue for conservation and sustainable development over destruction. She was, like the acacias and the Prunus Africana trees Wangari fought so nobly and assiduously to conserve, strong in character and able to survive sometimes the harshest of conditions. She was also immovable in the face of ignorance, political gamesmanship and wanton environmental destruction.”

On October 8, a private funeral service will be held for Maathai in Kenya that will be followed by the planting of 5,000 seedlings across the country. On Oct. 14, there will be a public memorial service at a church in Nairobi complete with a musical tribute and celebration of her life. The town of Bratteboro, Vermont, which has a special relationship with Maathai as she worked with two local filmmakers on the movie Taking Root about her life and work as well as led tree plantings in town and worked with a the SIT Graduate Center, is hosting their own celebrations, including a selection of Aftrican songs and an African dinner.