Wangari Maathai: Death of a Visionary (two items)
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Wangari Maathai: Death of a visionary
By Richard Black, environment correspondent
September 26, 2011
Wangari Maathai's compelling life story is inextricably
linked with the social and political changes that so much of
Africa has been through since the idea of throwing off
European colonialism began to gain traction shortly after
World War II.
Her unique insight was that the lives of Kenyans - and, by
extension, of people in many other developing countries -
would be made better if economic and social progress went
hand in hand with environmental protection.
The Green Belt Movement, which she founded in 1977, has
planted an estimated 45 million trees around Kenya.
The straightforward environmental benefits of that would have
been important enough on their own in a country whose
population has grown more than 10-fold over the last century,
creating huge pressure on land and water.
But what made the movement more remarkable was that it was
also conceived as a source of employment in rural areas, and
a way to give new skills to women who regularly came second
to men in terms of power, education, nutrition and much else.
Now, she has succumbed to a battle with cancer. But if cancer
was new to her, battle was definitely not; it was a way of
Opposing a major government-backed development in Nairobi,
she was labelled a "crazy woman"; it was suggested that she
should behave like a good African woman and do as she was
Her former husband made similar comments when suing for
divorce: she was strong-willed, and could not be controlled.
This alone gives some idea of the battles Dr Maathai fought
in the politically active phase of her life, which
encompassed and indeed wove together the ideals of helping
Kenya develop sustainably and helping Kenyan women achieve
But without the progress of post-colonial reforms, it's
doubtful that she would have been able to achieve a fraction
of what she did; the times she lived in generated the tides
she fought against, but they also provided the means with
which to fight.
Dr Maathai highlighted the damage that illegal logging was
doing to forests and livelihoods
Post-colonial links with the West offered Africans of great
intellect but poor background the chance to study abroad, in
the US and Germany.
This brought her the knowledge of biology and the PhD that
both opened doors in corridors of influence and gave
scientific underpinning to the environmental restoration work
on which she embarked.
Another vital strand in her life was the creation of global
environmental organisations, in particular the United Nations
Environment Programme (Unep) in 1972.
These organisations desperately needed to tap into expertise
in the developing world, especially because it was in these
countries that the vicious circle of environmental
degradation, unsustainable population growth and poverty was
at its most grinding.
With its headquarters situated in the Kenyan capital Nairobi,
Wangari Maathai was one of the first people from the
developing world adopted into the Unep "family", which meant
global exposure and, relatively, a huge influence.
Among other things, that meant the capacity to spread the
Green Belt philosophy to other countries where the ecological
and economic need is even more pressing than in Kenya -
notably the Congo Basin, where warring factions and deep
poverty have put huge pressure on forests and the wildlife
Eventually, this would all lead to the award in 2004 of the
Nobel Peace Prize - the first time it had gone to an African
woman, and arguably the first "green Nobel".
Tourists flock to Lake Nakuru's flamingos - an example of
environmental protection bringing revenue
I say "arguably" partly because previous prize-winning work
had contained an environmental component, such as that of
Paul Crutzen, Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina who
deciphered the chemistry of ozone depletion.
And partly because the citation itself does not explicitly
mention the word "environment", reading: "for her
contribution to sustainable development, democracy and
In other words, it's not just planting trees - it's the
reasons why trees are planted, it's the social side of how
the tree-planting works, it's the political work that goes
alongside tree-planting, and it's the vision that sees loss
of forest as translating into loss of prospects for people
down the track.
There is, in some parts of the world, a backlash now against
Every couple of days an email comes into my inbox asserting
that the way to help poorer countries develop is to get them
to exploit their natural resources as quickly and deeply as
possible with no regard for problems that may cause.
Organisations promoting this viewpoint are not, to my
knowledge, based in the developing world but in the Western
capitals that might make use of the fruits of such
exploitation - cheaper wood, cheaper oil, cheaper metals.
It is the opposite of sustainable.
But the existence of these lobby groups can be seen as a
testament to the influence that Wangari Maathai and others
like her have had on global debate.
The UN initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation
and forest Degradation (Redd), the linking of biodiversity to
livelihoods, moves to strengthen the rule of law as a pre-
requisite for environmental health, and the notion that
communities should gain when the natural resources they
maintain are exploited - all these in part trace their roots
back to Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement.
A Facebook page for tributes is laden with short but moving
comments that in a way sum up everything she was and
"If all us who loved her will plant a tree on her hon: she
will smile from the windows of heaven seeing green world. I
will plant one today".
"You have been a true inspiration to those who love and care
And perhaps the most moving of all: "You made a difference".
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First African woman to win Nobel Peace Prize dies
Kenya's former president called her a mad woman...
By JASON STRAZIUSO, TOM ODULA
September 26, 2011
NAIROBI, Kenya - Kenya's former president called her a mad
woman. Seen as a threat to the rich and powerful, Wangari
Maathai was beaten, arrested and vilified for the simple act
of planting a tree, a natural wonder Maathai believed could
reduce poverty and conflict.
Former elementary school students who planted saplings
alongside her, world leaders charmed by her message and
African visionaries on Monday remembered a woman some called
the Tree Mother of Africa. Maathai, Africa's first female
winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, died late Sunday in a
Nairobi hospital following a battle with cancer. She was 71.
Maathai believed that a healthy environment helped improve
lives by providing clean water and firewood for cooking,
thereby decreasing conflict. The Kenyan organization she
founded planted 30 million trees in hopes of improving the
chances for peace, a triumph for nature that inspired the
U.N. to launch a worldwide campaign that resulted in 11
billion trees planted.
Maathai, a university professor with a warm smile and college
degrees from the United States, staged popular protests that
bedeviled former President Daniel arap Moi, a repressive and
autocratic ruler who called her "a mad woman" who was a
threat to the security of Kenya.
In the summer of 1998, the Kenyan government was giving land
to political allies in a protected forest on Nairobi's
outskirts. Maathai began a campaign to reclaim the land,
culminating in a confrontation with 200 hired thugs armed
with machetes and bows and arrows. When Maathai tried to
plant a tree, she and her cohorts were attacked with whips,
clubs and stones. Maathai received a bloody gash on her head.
"Many said, 'She is just planting trees.' But that was
important, not only from an environmental perspective, to
stop the desert from spreading, but also as a way to activate
women and fight the Daniel arap Moi regime," said Geir
Lundestad, director of the Nobel Institute, which awarded
Maathai the peace prize in 2004.
"Wangari Maathai combined the protection of the environment,
with the struggle for women's rights and fight for
democracy," he said.
Maathai said during her 2004 Peace Prize acceptance speech
that the inspiration for her life's work came from her
childhood experiences in rural Kenya. There she witnessed
forests being cleared and replaced by commercial plantations,
which destroyed biodiversity and the capacity of forests to
After arap Moi left government, Maathai served as an
assistant minister for the environment and natural resources
Although the tree-planting campaign launched by her group,
the Green Belt Movement, did not initially address the issues
of peace and democracy, Maathai said it became clear over
time that responsible governance of the environment was not
possible without democracy.
"Therefore, the tree became a symbol for the democratic
struggle in Kenya. Citizens were mobilized to challenge
widespread abuses of power, corruption and environmental
mismanagement," Maathai said.
Maathai's work was quickly recognized by groups and
governments the world over, winning awards, accolades and
partnerships with powerful organizations. Meanwhile, her
dedication to nature remained, as could be seen in her role
in a movie called "Dirt! The Movie," where Maathai narrated
the story of a hummingbird carrying one drop of water at a
time to fight a forest fire, even as animals like the
elephant asked why the hummingbird was wasting his energy.
"It turns to them and tells them, 'I'm doing the best I can.'
And that to me is what all of us should do. We should always
feel like a hummingbird," she said. "I certainly don't want
to be like the animals watching as the planet goes down the
drain. I will be a hummingbird. I will do the best I can."
Recognizing that never-say-die attitude, Kenyan Prime
Minister Raila Odinga said Maathai's death "strikes at the
core of our nation's heart." Odinga said Maathai died just as
the causes she fought for were getting the attention they
The United Nations Environment Program called Maathai one of
Africa's foremost environmental campaigners and recalled that
Maathai was the inspiration behind UNEP's 2006 Billion Tree
Campaign. More than 11 billion trees have been planted so
"Wangari Maathai was a force of nature. While others deployed
their power and life force to damage, degrade and extract
short term profit from the environment, she used hers to
stand in their way, mobilize communities and to argue for
conservation and sustainable development over destruction,"
said Achim Steiner, the executive director of UNEP.
Tributes poured out for Maathai online, including from
Kenyans who remember planting trees alongside her as
schoolchildren. One popular Twitter posting noted that
Maathai's knees always seemed to be dirty from showing VIPs
how to plant trees. Another poster, noting Nairobi's cloudy
skies Monday, said: "No wonder the sun is not shining today."
Her quest to see fewer trees felled and more planted saw her
face off against Kenya's powerful elite. At least three times
during her activist years she was physically attacked,
including being clubbed unconscious by police during a hunger
strike in 1992.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Monday called Maathai a "true
African heroine." The Nelson Mandela Foundation also
expressed sadness. The foundation hosted Maathai in 2005,
when she headlined the foundation's annual lecture.
. "We need people who love Africa so much that they want to
protect her from destructive processes," she said in her
address. "There are simple actions we can take. Start by
planting 10 trees we each need to absorb the carbon dioxide
The spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said
Maathai was a "pioneer in articulating the links between
human rights, poverty, environmental protection and
In a statement released by the U.S. State Department,
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was
inspired by Maathai's story and "proud to call her my
"Her death has left a gaping hole among the ranks of women
leaders, but she leaves behind a solid foundation for others
to build upon," she said in the statement.
A long time friend and fellow professor at the University of
Nairobi, Vertistine Mbaya said that Maathai showed the world
how important it is to have and demonstrate courage.
"The values she had for justice and civil liberties and what
she believed were the obligations of civil society and
government," Mbaya said. "She also demonstrated the
importance of recognizing the contributions that women can
make and allowing them the open space to do so."
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