Wangari Maathai, the woman of trees, dies

Wangari Maathai: A pioneer in linking environmental protection with human rights Wangari Maathai: A pioneer in linking environmental protection with human rights.

Photo: UN Photo / Evan Schneider

Kenya’s Wangari Muta Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, environmentalist and human rights activist, died 25 September at age 71. A mother of three, she devoted her life to promoting the environment and democracy.

Ms. Maathai frequently expressed concern about poverty in Africa. In an exclusive interview with Africa Renewal shortly after winning the Nobel Prize (see full text online), she maintained that Africans “cannot afford to have a region where a few people are filthy rich and a huge number of people are in dehumanizing poverty.” She was the first African female to win a Nobel Peace Prize and the first woman in East Africa to earn a doctorate in veterinary anatomy, which she obtained from the University of Nairobi. She studied in Kenya, the US and Germany.

Ms. Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 to plant trees across Kenya, alleviate poverty and end conflict. She was driven by a perceived connection between environmental degradation and poverty and conflict. “Poor people will cut the last tree to cook the last meal,” she once said. “The more you degrade the environment, the more you dig deeper into poverty.”

She mobilized Kenyans, particularly women, to plant more than 30 million trees, and inspired the United Nations to launch a campaign that has led to the planting of 11 billion trees worldwide. More than 900,000 Kenyan women benefited from her tree-planting campaign by selling seedlings for reforestation.

Ms. Maathai recognized that purposeful political leadership can achieve positive social change. “Therefore, the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya,” she said. She organized protests against former President Daniel arap Moi, who angrily referred to her as a “mad woman” and her activities as “subversive.” In 1992, while protesting the president’s allocations of land to his cronies, she was beaten unconscious by thugs and state police. She remained undaunted.

President Moi stepped down in 2002, providing Ms. Maathai with a friendlier political climate. She won a parliamentary election and became assistant minister of the environment. Not long after, the ruling party dismissed her from the cabinet for involvement in opposition politics. She subsequently lost her parliamentary seat during a dubious election.

Wangari Maathai, talking in 1983 with members of the Green Belt Movement environmental group she founded in KenyaWangari Maathai, talking in 1983 with members of the Green Belt Movement environmental group she founded in Kenya.
Photo: UN Photo / Jackie Curtis

She fought many battles, including personal ones. Her husband, Mwangi Maathai, divorced her for being “too strong-minded for a woman.” She challenged the divorce in court, and when she lost she called the judge “incompetent and corrupt.” The remarks landed her in jail for six months.

Following her death, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Ms. Maathai “a pioneer in articulating the links between human rights, poverty, environmental protection and security.” Al Gore, a former US vice-president and another Nobel laureate, said she “devoted her service to her children, to her constituents, to the women, all people of Kenya — and to the world.” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “Her death has left a gaping hole among the ranks of women leaders.”

During her last days, even as she battled ovarian cancer in a Nairobi hospital, Ms. Maathai reiterated her wish that she must not be buried in a wooden coffin — thereby reaffirming her life-long battle to save trees and the rest of the environment. The Nigerian environmental activist, Nnimmo Bassey, commented: “If no one applauds this great woman of Africa, the trees will clap.”

— Africa Renewal online