The Passing of Nobelist Wangari Maathai: “You Cannot Protect the Environment Unless You Empower People”

It is with great sadness that the family of Professor Wangari Maathai announces her passing away on 25th September, 2011, at the Nairobi Hospital, after a prolonged and bravely borne struggle with cancer. Her loved ones were with her at the time.

by Wangari Maathai’s family and members of the Green Belt Movement

Professor Maathai’s departure is untimely and a very great loss to all who knew her — as a mother, relative, co-worker, colleague, role model, and heroine; or who admired her determination to make the world a more peaceful, healthier, and better place .

Prof. Wangari Muta Maathai started the Green Belt Movement in 1977, working with women to improve their livelihoods by increasing their access to resources like firewood for cooking and clean water. She became a great advocate for better management of natural resources and for sustainability, equity, and justice.

A synopsis of her life and work can be read below.

Wangari Muta Maathai (1940–2011): Nobel Peace Laureate; environmentalist; scientist; parliamentarian; founder of the Green Belt Movement; advocate for social justice, human rights, and democracy; elder; and peacemaker. She lived and worked in Nairobi, Kenya.

“Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times. But all of them picked themselves up and kept going, and that is what I have always tried to do.”

“You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.”

Wangari Maathai was born in the village of Ihithe, near Nyeri, in the Central Highlands of Kenya on April 1, 1940. At a time when most Kenyan girls were not educated, she went to school at the instigation of her elder brother, Nderitu. Principally taught by Catholic missionary nuns, she graduated from Loreto Girls’ High School in 1959. The following year she was part of the “Kennedy airlift,” a scholarship program of the U.S. government and the Kennedy family that took her to Mount St. Scholastica (now Benedictine College) in Atchison, Kansas, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences.

In 1966 she earned a master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh. That year she returned to a newly independent Kenya, and soon after joined the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nairobi. In 1971 she received a Ph.D., the first woman in east and central Africa to do so. She became the first woman to chair a department at the University and the first to be appointed a professor.

In the 1970s Professor Maathai became active in a number of environmental and humanitarian organizations in Nairobi, including the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). Through her work representing women academics in the NCWK, she spoke to rural women and learned from them about the deteriorating environmental and social conditions affecting poor, rural Kenyans—especially women. The women told her that they lacked firewood for cooking and heating, that clean water was scarce, and nutritious food was limited.

Professor Maathai suggested to them that planting trees might be an answer. The trees would provide wood for cooking, fodder for livestock, and material for fencing; they would protect watersheds and stabilize the soil, improving agriculture. This was the beginning of the Green Belt Movement (GBM), which was formally established in 1977. GBM has since mobilized hundreds of thousands of women and men to plant more than 47 million trees, restoring degraded environments and improving the quality of life for people in poverty.

As GBM’s work expanded, Professor Maathai realized that behind poverty and environmental destruction were deeper issues of disempowerment, bad governance, and a loss of the values that had enabled communities to sustain their land and livelihoods, and what was best in their cultures. The planting of trees became an entry-point for a larger social, economic, and environmental agenda.

In the 1980s and 1990s the Green Belt Movement joined with other pro-democracy advocates to press for an end to the abuses of the dictatorial regime of then Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi. Professor Maathai initiated campaigns that halted the construction of a skyscraper in Uhuru (“Freedom”) Park in downtown Nairobi, and stopped the grabbing of public land in Karura Forest, just north of the city center. She also helped lead a yearlong vigil with the mothers of political prisoners that resulted in freedom for 51 men held by the government.

As a consequence of these and other advocacy efforts, Professor Maathai and GBM staff and colleagues were repeatedly beaten, jailed, harassed, and publicly vilified by the Moi regime. Professor Maathai’s fearlessness and persistence resulted in her becoming one of the best-known and most respected women in Kenya. Internationally, she also gained recognition for her courageous stand for the rights of people and the environment.

Professor Maathai’s commitment to a democratic Kenya never faltered. In December 2002, in the first free-and-fair elections in her country for a generation, she was elected as Member of Parliament for Tetu, a constituency close to where sh egrew up. In 2003 President Mwai Kibaki appointed her Deputy Minister for the Environment in the new government. Professor Maathai brought GBM’s strategy of grassroots empowerment and commitment to participatory, transparent governance to the Ministry of Environment and the management of Tetu’s constituency development fund (CDF). As an MP, she emphasized: reforestation, forest protection, and the restoration of degraded land; education initiatives, including scholarships for those orphaned by HIV/AIDS; and expanded access to voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) as well as improved nutrition for those living with HIV/AIDS.

In the violence that followed the contested 2007 Kenyan elections, Professor Maathai served as a mediator and a critical voice for peace, accountability, and justice. In addition, she and GBM were instrumental in ensuring that the new Kenyan constitution, ratified by a public vote in 2010, included the right of all citizens to a clean and healthy environment, and that the constitution’s drafting was truly consultative.

In 2004 Professor Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her work for sustainable development, democracy, and peace—the first African woman and the first environmentalist to receive this honor. In announcing the award, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said that Professor Maathai “stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa.” It praised the “holistic approach” of her work and called her “a strong voice speaking for the best forces in Africa to promote peace and good living conditions on that continent.”

In 2006 Professor Maathai co-founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative with five of her fellow female peace laureates to advocate for justice, equality, and peace worldwide.

In recent years Professor Maathai played an increasingly important role in global efforts to address climate change, specifically by advocating for the protection of indigenous forests and the inclusion of civil society in policy decisions. In 2005 ten Central African governments appointed her the goodwill ambassador for the Congo Basin rainforest and that same year she accepted the position of presiding officer of the African Union’s Economic, Social, and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC).

In 2006 Professor Maathai joined with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to launch a campaign to plant a billion trees around the world. Tha tgoal was met in less than a year; the target now stands at 14 billion. In 2007 Professor Maathai became co-chair (with former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin) of the Congo Basin Forest Fund, an initiative of the British and Norwegian governments, and in 2009 she was designated a United Nations messenger of peace by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

In 2010, Professor Maathai became a trustee of the Karura Forest Environmental Education Trust. That same year, in partnership with the University of Nairobi, she established the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies (WMI). The WMI will bring together academic research—e.g. in land use, forestry, agriculture, resource-based conflicts, and peace studies—with the Green Belt Movement approach and members of the organization. Through sharing their experiences, academics and those working at the grassroots will learn from and educate each other on the linkages between livelihoods and ecosystems.

Professor Maathai received a number of honors. Those bestowed on her by governments include: the Order of the Rising Sun (Japan, 2009), the Legion D’Honneur (France, 2006), and Elder of the Golden Heart and Elder of the Burning Spear (Kenya, 2004, 2003). Professor Maathai also received awards from many organizations and institutions throughout the world, including: the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights (2007), the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights Lifetime Achievement Award (2006), the Sophie Prize (2004), the Goldman Prize (1991), the Right Livelihood Award (1984); and honorary doctorates from Yale University and Morehouse College in the U.S., Ochanomizu University in Japan, and the University of Norway, among others.

Professor Maathai documented her life, work, and perspectives in four books: The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience (2003), which charts the organization’s development and methods; Unbowed (2006), her autobiography; The Challenge for Africa (2008), which examines the social, economic, and political bottlenecks that have held back the continent’s development, and provides a manifesto for change; and Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World (2010), which explores the values that underpin the Green Belt Movement and suggests how they can be applied.

Professor Maathai is survived by her three children—Waweru, Wanjira, and Muta, and her granddaughter, Ruth Wangari.

by Wangari Maathai’s family and members of the Green Belt Movement. Further information on how Prof’s life will be celebrated, where to share memories and condolences, and how to join us to build her legacy for generations to come will be provided shortly.


7 Responses to The Passing of Nobelist Wangari Maathai: “You Cannot Protect the Environment Unless You Empower People”

  1. Joan Savage says:

    When Wangari Maathai spoke at Syracuse University, she gave a radiantly warm-spirited and earthy address about the development of the Green Belt Movement and broadening of the definition of peace making. At that time, she indicated she might run for public office in Kenya. Had she been able to do so, Kenya might have been able to take a smoother path than where it is today. She is seriously missed.

  2. Pythagoras says:

    Despite all her accomplishments, Wangari Maathai was never able to address the elephant in the room in that condition of Kenya’s environment was linked to Kenya’s level of population. As of today, over 40% of Kenya’s population is below the age of 14 years. It’s population growth rate is ~2.5% per year, which means that its population is set to double by 2040.

    Wangari Maathai was a dynamic and motivational speaker when I saw her in Seattle. But in her speech, she never mentioned the role of population in the effort to protect the environment. Perhaps she felt that the message would impact her message of environmental conservation and stewardship. In any event, my fear is that all the effort to plant trees will be undone by the relentless and overwhelming pressure of overpopulation.

    [Ref.: CIA Fact Book, Kenya]

  3. Joan Savage says:

    Green Belt created a basis for greater economic status for women in Kenya, so necessary for a lower birthrate, and a much more fundamental task than talking about it. Kenya has had a declining birthrate per woman in recent years, although that is not all attributable to women’s economic status.
    Big land deals, including international sales, lower the economic status of many Kenyan men, who need access to agricultural land to start a family. Numerous young men are aging singles, with marginal employment.

    The Kenyan situation seems volatile enough that an extrapolation to 2040 should come with a very wide error bar.

  4. Joan Savage says:

    My informants live in Kenya. One works with widows of men who died from HIV, another works on trauma healing after civil war.

  5. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    We environmentalists mourn the passing away of Wangari Maathai.

    Wangari Maathai was the founder of the Green Belt Movement, an environmentalist, a civil society and women’s rights activist, and a former parliamentarian.

    Professor Maathai is internationally recognized for her persistent struggle for democracy, human rights and environmental conservation. She has addressed the UN on several occasions and spoke on behalf of women at special sessions of the General Assembly during the five-year review of the Earth Summit. She served on the commission for Global Governance and the Commission on the Future. She and the Green Belt Movement have received numerous awards, most notably the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.

    She has won several International Awards for her outstanding work on Environment.

    2010: Earth Hall of Fame, Kyoto (Japan)
    2009: Earth Hall of Fame, Kyoto (Japan)
    2009: Humanity 4 Water Award for Outstanding Commitment 2 Action
    2009: The Order of the Rising Sun, Japan
    2009: Judge, 2009 Geotourism Challenge, National Geographic, USA
    2009: NAACP Chairman’s Award , USA
    2008: Dignitas Humana Award, St John’s School of Theology, USA
    2008: Cinema Verite, Honorary President, France
    2008: Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Honorary Fellowship, UK
    2007: The Nelson Mandela Award for Health & Human Rights, South Africa
    2007: The Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, India
    2007: Cross of the Order of St Benedict, Benedictine College, Kansas, USA
    2007: World Citizenship Award, World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts
    2006: The Indira Gandhi International Award for Peace, Disarmament & Development, India
    2006: Premio Defensa Medio Ambiente, Club Internacional De Prensa, Spain
    2006: 6th in 100 Greatest Eco-Heroes of All Time, The Environment Agency, UK
    2006: Medal for Distinguished Achievement, University of Pennsylvania, USA
    2006: Woman of Achievement Award from the American Biographical Institute Inc., USA
    2006: The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights,
    Milele(Lifetime) Achievement Award
    2006: Legion D’Honneur, Government of France
    2006: The IAIA Global Environment Award,
    International Association for Impact Assessment, Norway
    2006: Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund Award, USA
    2006: World Citizenship Award
    2005: New York Women’s Century Award, New York Women’s Foundation, USA
    2005: One of the 100 Most Influential People in the World: Time magazine, USA
    2005: One of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World: Forbes magazine, USA
    2004: Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Norway
    2004: Sophie Prize, the Sophie Foundation, Norway
    2004: Elder of the Golden Heart, Republic of Kenya
    2004: Petra Kelly Environment Prize, Heinrich Boell Foundation, Germany
    2004: J. Sterling Morton Award, Arbor Day Foundation, USA
    2004: Conservation Scientist Award,
    Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, Columbia University, USA
    2003: Elder of the Burning Spear, Republic of Kenya
    2003: WANGO Environment Award,
    World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations , USA
    2002: Outstanding Vision and Commitment Award, Bridges to Community, USA
    2001: Excellence Award, Kenyan Community Abroad, USA
    2001: The Juliet Hollister Award, Temple of Understanding, USA
    1997: One of 100 in the World Who’ve Made a Difference in the Environment:
    Earth Times, USA
    1995: International Women’s Hall of Fame,
    International Women’s Forum Leadership Foundation, USA
    1994: The Order of the Golden Ark Award, the Netherlands
    1993: The Jane Addams Leadership Award, Jane Addams Conference, USA
    1993: The Edinburgh Medal, Medical Research Council, Scotland
    1991: The Hunger Project’s Africa Prize for Leadership, United Nations, USA
    1991: Global 500 Hall of Fame: United Nations Environment Programme, USA
    1991: The Goldman Environmental Prize, the Goldman Foundation, USA
    1990: The Offeramus Medal, Benedictine College, USA
    1989: Women of the World Award, WomenAid, UK
    1988: The Windstar Award for the Environment, Windstar Foundation, USA
    1986: Better World Society Award, USA
    1984: Right Livelihood Award, Sweden
    1983: Woman of the Year Award

    I had correspondence with The Green Belt Movement.

    Indeed with the demise of Prof. Wangari Maathai there is a void in the African environment movement.

    May her soul rest in peace.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India

  6. Tim Kelly says:

    I first heard of Prof. Maathai while viewing the PBS series, “Race to Save the Planet”. I just got done telling my 12-year-old daughter about. I wanted her to know who she was and what she stood for. Professor Maathai was always one of my heroes, though I admit I never expended the kind of effort in supporting a cause that she did.

    It’s particularly sad that now, with the recent passing of Ray Anderson, the sustainability movement has lost two champions. I hope that the lessons that had for us will not be lost along with them.

  7. Mark Shapiro says:

    Wangari Maathai was a hero’s hero. The odds she faced, the punishments she endured, the breadth and depth of her vision, her persistence in her struggles for justice, all mark her as one of the great ones.

    Her work illuminates the difficulty of achieving justice. And the importance. She lead. We are privileged to follow.

    (And as she attended the University of Pittsburgh where my father taught, it is possible that I met her briefly, long ago. . . )