Last week Wangari Maathi, founder of the Green Belt Movement, died at the age of 71. In 2004, when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, she became the first African woman to win a Nobel. (The fact that it took so long for an African woman to win a Nobel is a sad comment about the world in which we live and about whose work is valued and whose is not.) Maathi created the Green Belt Movement in her native Kenya in 1977 with the dual purpose of restoring the natural environment of Kenya that has been devastated by deforestation while at the same time empowering women to become economically self-sufficient, to stand up for their rights, and to do something concrete to preserve the environment. The Green Belt Movement organized the women of rural Kenya to cultivate (in tree nurseries) and plant trees.
In 1985, the UN held the third global women's conference in Nairobi. During the conference, Maathai gave presentations to describe the work of the Green Belt Movement. She took delegates to tour nurseries and to plant trees. Her activity at the women’s conference helped to secure funding for the Green Belt Movement to expand its activities outside of Kenya. In 1986, Maathi founded the Pan-African Green Belt Network, through which representatives from 15 other African countries came to Kenya to learn how women could set up programs to combat “desert-ification,” deforestation, soil erosion, water crises, and rural hunger.
As a result of her work empowering women and planting trees, Maathi was twice imprisoned, and in 1992 she suffered a severe beating at the hands of the police while leading a peaceful protest. Her husband divorced her because she was too headstrong and he “couldn’t control her.” She was forced out of her home and stripped of her position as a teacher at the University of Nairobi. Nevertheless, she won a seat in the Kenyan Parliament in 2002, which she held until she was forced out of government in 2008. After that she took her politics back to the streets.
Maathi taught the women of Kenya that it was their civil right to preserve the forests of their homeland. Her work continues after her death. She achieved significant environmental protection in Kenya through tree planting, soil conservation, sustainable management of the local environment and economy, and the cultivation of local economic resources. The Green Belt Movement will continue to help women throughout Africa to generate their own incomes through business ventures such as seed sales. Through Maathi’s work, thousands of impoverished women have been educated about forestry and the Green Belt Movement has created over 3,000 jobs for women. What better legacy to leave? I honor you Wangari Maathai.