Posted by: Home Strange Home | October 3, 2009

Wangari Maathai: From Mud Hut to Nobel Prize

Wangari Maathai is a prominent campaigner for the environment, women’s rights, and democracy.  She has dedicated her life, and at times risked her life for, sustainable development in Africa. 

Maathai was born in 1940 in Nyeri, a rural village in Kenya, to a family of illiterate peasant farmers who lived without running water or electricity.  She grew up with the forest in her back yard and trees were to become a focus of her life.  Her parents made an atypical choice to send her to school and at 13 she joined a Catholic boarding school.  She excelled at her exams and went on to study biology at university in Kansas with a scholarship from the US government.  She later returned to Kenya, became the first woman in the region to get a PhD, and became a professor. 

She grew up during Kenya’s period of colonial rule and witnessed how the British culled the forests to create tea plantations for export.  Such abuse of the country’s natural resources continued post-independence with Kenya’s corrupt domestic ruling class.  Because of the deforestation she observed, Maathai was inspired to plant trees and started a grassroots scheme that paid women to plant trees.  Maathai persuaded an international organization to pay the women two pence for each tree they planted. 

The so-called “Green Belt” movement that Maathai founded in 1977 expanded in scale to plant whole forests across Kenya with the support of the United Nations Development Program.  To date, Maathai’s Green Belt movement has planted 40 million trees throughout Kenya and has evolved more broadly into a women’s civil society organization.  

Maathai has a history of speaking out publicly to fight her causes.  She first caused trouble with the ruling elite when she protested against President Arap Moi’s plan to develop Uhuru Park, the only park in Nairobi, into apartments, a skyscraper, and a giant statue of himself.  As a result of her efforts, she received death threats and was imprisoned.  But Maathai never gave in, and with growing pressure on Moi from international protests and the support of Al Gore, she was released and the project was abandoned.  She also stopped Moi from cutting down Karura Forest. 

Maathai also campaigned for women’s rights.  She supported women whose sons were imprisoned and tortured for opposing the regime and, along with other protesters, was severely beaten by the police.  Her ability to get Moi to back down on many issues inspired other Kenyans to dissent.  When Moi’s regime ended, Maathai was democratically elected to Parliament. 

 In 2004, Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming both the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the prize.  She is also a UN Goodwill Ambassador for the Congolese rainforest and Co-Chair of the Congo Basin Forest Fund, an organization created in 2008 to sustainably manage the forest.  The Congo Basin Forest gets little attention compared to its bigger brother the Amazon, but it is the world’s second largest rainforest and represents 26% of the world’s tropical rainforest.  It is hugely important in sequestering carbon, sustaining local livelihoods in the ten countries it spans, and hosting diverse wildlife. 

Maathai views the environment and development not as conflicting forces but as one and the same challenge.  Her view is that the world’s poor are the ones most vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation.  This is because the rural poor rely the most on the natural resources around them – they produce their own food, their agriculture is dependent on rainfall, they rely on river water for drinking, and they depend on firewood collected from the woods for fuel.  Maathai’s latest book, The Challenge for Africa, explores African identity, democracy, and civil society.  

Source: Developments Issue 46 + The Independent September 28, 2009.


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