Environmental activist, educator, and government official
Born Wangari Muta Maathai, April 1, 1940, in Nyeri, Kenya; married (divorced, c. 1984); children: three. Education: Mount St. Scholastica College, Atchison, Kansas, BA (biology), 1964; University of Pittsburgh, MS, 1965; University of Nairobi, PhD.
Addresses: Office —Old Treasury Building, Harambee Avenue, P.O. Box 30551, Nairobi, Kenya.
Made research assistant, department of veterinary medicine, University of Nairobi, 1966; joined National Council of Women of Kenya; lecturer, then assistant professor, then head of the faculty of veterinary medicine, University of Nairobi, 1970s; chair of veterinary anatomy, 1976; professor of veterinary anatomy, 1977—; founder and president, Green Belt Movement (formally Envirocare), 1977—; chair, National Council of Women of Kenya, 1981-87; Forum for Restoration of Democracy, founder with others, and member, 1991—; named co-chair for Jubilee 2000 Africa Campaign, 1998; elected member of parliament; Deputy Minister of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Wildlife, Kenyan Parliament, 2002—; named McCluskey Visiting Fellow in Conservation, Yale University, 2002.
Awards: Woman of the Year Award, 1983; Better World Society Award, 1986; Windstar Award for the Environment, 1988; Woman of the Year Award, 1989; Woman of the World, 1989; Honorary Doctor of
Avisionary environmentalist, Wangari Maathai created a successful reforestation program that began in Kenya and was adopted in other African nations and the United States. Maathai continues to be recognized worldwide for her achievements, although she is denounced as a traitor and a rebel in her home country.
Maathai (pronounced MATH-eye) is perhaps best known for creating the Green Belt Movement of Kenya, a program recognized all over the world for combining community development and reforestation to combat environmental and poverty issues. Maathai excelled at mobilizing people for a very simple goal—reforestation—which also impacted poverty and community development in Kenya. Maathai believed that people needed to help with environmental issues and should not rely upon the government. Maathai clashed with the Kenyan government, often at risk to her own life, when she opposed destructive governmental initiatives and when she forayed into politics personally.
Maathai was born in Kenya in 1940. Attending college in the United States, she went on to earn a B.S. from Mount St. Scholastica University, in Kansas and a M.S. from University of Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania. She then earned a Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi. She was the first woman in Kenya to earn a Ph.D. and at age 38, she held the first female professorship (in Animal Science) at the University of Nairobi. She credited her education with giving her the ability to see the difference between right and wrong, and with giving her the impetus to be strong.
Maathai's life was not without turmoil and hurdles, which she described as God-given. She married a politician who unknowingly provided the basis for her future environmental activities when he ran for office in 1974 and promised to plant trees in a poor area of the district he represented. Maathai's husband abandoned her and their three children later, filing and receiving a divorce on the grounds that she was "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control," according to the Mail & Guardian. Maathai maintained that it was particularly important for African women to know that they could be strong, and to liberate themselves from fear and silence.
In 1977 Maathai left her professor position at the University of Nairobi and founded the Green Belt Movement on World Environment Day by planting nine trees in her backyard. The Movement grew into a program run by women with the goal of reforesting Africa and preventing the poverty that deforestation caused. Deforestation was a significant environmental issue in Africa and was resulting in the encroachment of desert where forests had stood.
According to the United Nations in 1989, only nine trees were replanted in Africa for every 100 trees that were cut down. Not only did deforestation cause environmental problems such as soil runoff and subsequent water pollution, but lack of trees near villages meant that villagers had to walk great distances for firewood. Village livestock also suffered from not having vegetation to graze on.
Women in the Kenyan villages were the people who first implemented Maathai's Green Belt Movement. "Women," Maathai explained at National Geographic.com, "are responsible for their children, they cannot sit back, waste time, and see them starve." The program was carried out with the women establishing nurseries in their villages, and persuading farmers to plant the seedlings. The movement paid the women for each tree planted that lived past three months. Under Maathai's direction in its first 15 years, the program employed more than 50,000 women and planted more than 10 million trees. Other African nations adopted similar programs based on the Green Belt Movement model. Additionally, the government stepped up its tree planting efforts by 20 times.
The Greenbelt Movement that Maathai conceived was not limited solely to tree planting. The program worked in concert with the National Council of Women of Kenya to provide such services and training to Kenyan women and villages as family planning, nutrition using traditional foods, and leadership skills to improve the status of the women. By 1997 the Movement had resulted in the planting of 15 million trees, had spread to 30 African countries as well as the United States, and had provided income for 80,000 people.
Maathai had strong beliefs about how she carried out environmental activism. She warned that educated women should avoid becoming an elite, and instead, should do work for the planet. Nobody could afford to divorce themselves from the earth, she believed, because all human had to eat and depend on the soil. Activism, she felt, was most effective when done in groups rather than alone. She credited her success with the Green Belt Movement to keeping the goal simple. The program provided a ready answer for those who asked, "What can I do?" Planting trees, in this case, was the simple solution.
Maathai continued to oppose modernization that collided with her environmental beliefs; this often put her at odds with the government. As an example, she was thrown out of her state office in 1989 when she opposed the construction of a 60-story skyscraper in Uhuru Park in Nairobi. Maathai claimed that the building, which was to house government offices and a 24-hour TV station, would cost $200 million. The money, she claimed, could be better spent addressing serious poverty, hunger, and education needs in the country. Her opposition succeeded in frightening off foreign investors and they withdrew their support; the skyscraper was never built. In Nairobi, Maathai also opposed the deforestation of 50 acres of land outside the city limits to be used for growing roses for export.
Politics and environmental activism continued to interweave in Maathai's life even before she attempted to run for office. In 1991, she helped found the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy, a group that was opposed to the leadership of then-president Daniel arap Moi. She advocated for the release of political prisoners and led a hunger strike on 1992 with the mothers of these prisoners. During one of these protests, she was beaten by police until she lost consciousness.
In January of 1992 she was arrested for her political protest activities when more than 100 police raided her Nairobi residence. Later in 1992, she was charged with spreading rumors that then-president Moi planned to turn government power over to the military in order to prevent multi-party elections. While Maathai awaited trial for the latter charge, she was refused medical treatment in jail; even though she was experiencing difficulties due to a history of heart problems and arthritis.
In 1992 Maathai was approached to run for the Presidency by a cross section of the Kenyan population. She declined, preferring to try and unite the fractured opposition parties against President Moi. Her efforts failed and Moi was again elected.
In 1997 Maathai responded to encouragement from supporters and friends and announced that she was running not only for a Parliament seat, but for the presidency under the Liberal Party of Kenya (LPK) in an attempt to defeat Moi. She got a late start in the process and did not announce her intentions until a month before the election. She denounced the current corruption in the government, and urged that the time had come to restore Kenyan people's dignity, self respect, and human rights. The government that she proposed was a people centered operation, or an "enabling political environment to facilitate development." Central to her vision was a Kenyan society where people acknowledged their cultural and spiritual background as they participated in government.
However, Maathai released no party manifesto prior to the election, claiming that the Green Belt Movement would provide the direction for her platform. At least one political analyst of the Africa News Service, saw this as troubling, claiming that Maathai might focus only on environmental issues and that the LPK already had a manifesto. Maathai countered such fears by claiming that her leadership would focus not only on the environment (which was, in her mind, tied to other issues like hunger), but on infrastructure issues, poverty, disease, and the empowerment of the oppressed.
Maathai found fault with the current political system, which required candidates to acquire extremely large amounts of money in order to carry out campaigns. This situation, she claimed, made it difficult for many visionary hopefuls like herself to even have a chance at making a difference in Kenya. A few days prior to the December 1997 election, the LPK leaders withdrew Maathai's candidacy without notifying her. Her bid for a Parliament seat was also defeated in the election; she came in third. Moi again emerged as the presidential victor. She continues to be admired worldwide, however, for her visionary work in the environmental arena.
In January of 1999, Wangari was hospitalized for a head wound and concussion she suffered during a government-arranged attack while she and some supporters were planting trees in the Karura Public Forest in Nairobi. The plantings were part of a protest against the land being approved for clearing and development. She immediately reported the incident to Amnesty International and other agencies, which publicized it through the world media as Wangari lay in her hospital bed. Accustomed to such treatment, however, Wangari has continued her environmental campaign undaunted.
In 2001, the Green Belt Movement filed suit to prevent a forest clearance project by the Kenya government that included a plan to clear 69,000 hectares of woodland to house homeless squatters. Maathai believed that it was the government's deliberate ploy to gain support in the coming elections. Planet Ark.com reported that she commented, "It's a matter of life and death for this country, we are extremely worried. The Kenyan forests are facing extinction and it is a man-made problem."
Maathai's future plans include another worthy cause: she hopes to establish a center to house battered women and children. This is an enormous undertaking that will require a lot of support, education, and resources. Many African men will need to be persuaded as they might see this as an intrusion into their culture. Oftentimes they treat women as personal property, especially among those who have paid exorbitant amounts of money for the bride price. Successful programs in Europe and the United States include components for counseling both the victims and the perpetrators. Many Africans will have to change their mind-set and treat men who abuse women and children as lawbreakers. On the other hand, African women should not be content to remain as victims; they should be aware that they have choices and human rights. Moi left office in December of 2002, after a constitutional ban prevented him from seeking reelection.
Maathai was elected a member of parliament and appointed Deputy Minister of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Wildlife. Now as she serves as a lawmaker, she is in a good position to support or enact laws that will protect women's rights as human rights. She also began an appointment as the fifth McCluskey Visiting Fellow in Conservation at Yale University's prestigious Global Institute for Sustainable Forestry, where she co-taught a course titled "Environment and Livelihoods: Governance, Donors, and Debt."
Such commitment has earned Maathai many accolades and acclaim. Among the many prizes and recognitions bestowed upon her is the 1991 Goldman Environmental Prize, one of the most prestigious in the world. She received the Edinburgh Medal in 1993, and in 1997, she was elected by Earth Times as one of 100 persons in the world who have made a difference in the field of environmentalism. On March 30, 2004, Maathai won the 2004 Sophie Prize, founded by Norwegian writers Jostein Gaardner and Siri Dannevig. The $100,000 award recognized Maathai's work on environmental issues.
Maathai's name became even more well-known when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the first ever given to an African woman. She was honored for aiding democracy and attempting to save Africa's forests. At the ceremony, Maathai stated, according to CNN.com, "The environment is very important in the aspects of peace because when we destroy our resources and our resources become scarce, we fight over that. I am working to make sure we don't only protect the environment, we also improve governance." According to the Mail & Guardian, the money that goes with the Nobel Peace Prize received a lot of attention from the Kenyan media. After being asked frequently about what she planned to do with the money—and giving the standard answer, about funding environmental programs—Maathai finally declared, "I could indulge, yes, but how many cups of tea can I drink?"
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"Foresters Without Diplomas," Ms. Magazine, March-April 1991, p. 74.
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Africa News Service, October 27, 1997; January 5, 1998.
E Magazine, January 11, 1997.
Inter Press Service English News Wire, December 10, 1997.
People, October 25, 2004, pp. 71-72.
Time, April 23, 1990; April 29, 1991; April 27, 1992.
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"Wangari Maathai: Saving the Earth, Tree by Tree," State of the World Forum, http://www.simulconference.com/clients/sowf/dispatches/dispatch27.html (March 18, 2005).