Tree Heroes: Wangari Maathai

Another serious Tree Hero who we admire deeply has got to be Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai, Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Green Belt Movement. An incredible woman with countless accolades and achievements, she was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. But then, her many degrees were just one aspect of her astounding life.

Born in 1940 in the Nyeri district of Kenya, Maathai finished her undergraduate studies at Benedictine College in Kansas USA in 1964 afterwhich she pursued a master’s degree in biology at the University of Pittsburgh. It was here that she had her first encounter with environmental activism and restoration. After obtaining her doctorate she returned to Kenya and about a year later, she left again to Germany to pursue a doctorate at the University of Munich.

In 1969 she returned to Nairobi where she completed her doctorate in veterinary anatomy and became the first woman in Nairobi to be a senior lecturer, chair of Department of Veterinary Anatomy and associate professor, all the while advocating equal rights for women. But it was in 1976, while she was serving in the National Council of Women of Kenya, when Professor Maathai introduced the idea of community-based tree planting, founding the Green Belt Movement in partnership with Norwegian Forestry Society.

The Green Belt Movement was formed as a response to the women of rural Kenya reporting that streams were drying up, threatening their food and water supply and having to walk long distances for firewood. Green Belt Movement then enabled the women to grow seedlings and plant trees thereby binding the soil and preventing erosion, receiving a small income from this work. But the Green Belt Movement became so much more than planting trees as their website explains:

“Shortly after beginning this work, Professor Maathai saw that behind the everyday hardships of the poor—environmental degradation, deforestation, and food insecurity—were deeper issues of disempowerment, disenfranchisement, and a loss of the traditional values that had previously enabled communities to protect their environment, work together for mutual benefit, and to do both selflessly and honestly. The Green Belt Movement instituted seminars in civic and environmental education, now called Community Empowerment and Education seminars (CEE), to encourage individuals to examine why they lacked agency to change their political, economic, and environmental circumstances.”

To date this organisation has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya as well as trained countless rural women and community organisations in natural resource management. Maathai passed away in 2011, but her legacy for a sustainable, democratic future lives on.

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