International Women’s Day: the Work of Wangari Maathai

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wangari maathaiThis Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Day, we’d like to high­light the work of an impor­tant envi­ron­men­tal activist and Nobel lau­re­ate – Wan­gari Maathai.

Maathai was born in Kenya in 1940, and stud­ied in Kenya, Ger­many, and the Unit­ed States (in fact, she attend­ed the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pitts­burgh!). She was the first woman in East and Cen­tral Africa to earn a doc­tor­ate degree. She became chair of the Depart­ment of Vet­eri­nary Anato­my at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nairo­bi in 1976 and an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor in 1977. She was the first woman in the region to achieve either position.

Maathai is the founder of the Green Belt Move­ment (GBM), based out of the idea of com­mu­ni­ty-based tree plant­i­ng she pro­posed while serv­ing on the Nation­al Coun­cil of Women of Kenya (NCWK). On World Envi­ron­ment day (June 5, 1977), the NCWK plant­ed sev­en trees on the out­skirts of Nairo­bi, mark­ing the first “Green Belt.” Maathai con­tin­ued to encour­age women to plant tree nurs­eries through­out the country.

Maathai coor­di­nat­ed the GBM with fund­ing help from the Nor­we­gian Forestry Soci­ety. She also received fund­ing from the Unit­ed Nations Vol­un­tary Fund for Women that enabled the GBM to expand, hire more employ­ees, and pay a small stipend to those who plant­ed trees.

The Green Belt Move­ment grew out­side Kenya in 1986, expand­ing through­out Africa. Fif­teen nations sent rep­re­sen­ta­tives to Kenya to learn how to build sim­i­lar pro­grams in their own coun­tries. The GBM became its own orga­ni­za­tion sep­a­rate from NCWK in 1987.

Maathai con­tin­ued to be an activist for the envi­ron­ment, some­times at the dis­plea­sure of the gov­ern­ment. Her protests were often peace­ful and includ­ed tree plant­i­ngs. In 2003, she was appoint­ed Assis­tant Min­is­ter in the Min­istry for Envi­ron­ment and Nat­ur­al Resources. She found­ed the Mazin­gi­ra Green Par­ty of Kenya, pro­vid­ing can­di­dates the chance to run on a plat­form of conservation.

In 2004, Maathai was award­ed the Nobel Peace Prize for her “con­tri­bu­tion to sus­tain­able devel­op­ment, democ­ra­cy, and peace.” She was the first African woman, and the first envi­ron­men­tal­ist, to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

In addi­tion to her many oth­er awards, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nairo­bi now has the Wan­gari Maathai Insti­tute for Peace & Envi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies. The Wan­gari Maathai Foun­da­tion was estab­lished in 2015 to fur­ther her vision and legacy.

You can read more about this trail­blaz­ing forestry and envi­ron­men­tal pio­neer on the Green Belt Move­ment web­site. You can also watch the doc­u­men­tary Tak­ing Root: The Vision of Wan­gari Maathai.

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