In Memoriam for Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai

Kenyan environmentalist and the 2004 Nobel Peace prize winner Wangari  Maathai passed on today while undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer at Nairobi Hospital. She was diagnosed with the cancer last year.

Known as “mother of the trees” in her native Kenya, Maathai was a champion of democracy and good management of natural resources. She started the Green Belt Movement in 1977, working with women to improve their livelihoods by increasing their access to resources such as clean water and firewood.

The official website of the Greenbelt Movement, which she founded, posted a tribute to her on Monday morning saying; “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.” She was vocal with her Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organisation focused on planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women’s rights in the country.

The 71-year-old political activist is well known for her constant battles with the government to protect Kenya’s forests from grabbers, mainly high-ranking officials.

“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,” she once said and warned that: “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.”

Through her work representing women academics, 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.

Maathai suggested 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, Maathai realized that behind poverty and environmental destruction were deeper issues of dis-empowerment, 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.

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.

Her autobiography The Challenge for Africa (2008), examines the social, economic, and political bottlenecks that have held back the continent’s development, and provides a manifesto for change.