A Woman of Environmental History: Professor Waangari Muta Maathai

Barack Obama’s contribution to the global climate talks in December 2011 was a message in which he urged countries to preserve their forests much like Wangari Maathai had been doing since 1976 in Kenya.

Yup, the whole world was being urged to play catch-up to a woman who had a simple idea some 35 years previously in Kenya.

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“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.”

Unfortunately, Professor Maathai never got to see the climate talks or Obama’s message as she had passed away in September 2011 from cancer. Her legacy lives on in her Green Belt Movement, which spread the very simple idea that planting a tree could save lives. Professor Maathai was born in Kenya in 1940. This wasn’t an environment that encouraged the education of women and daughters. In fact decades later not much had changed in regards to the attitudes towards women in her country — her husband divorced her because he thought that she was too strong-minded for a woman, and he could not control her. So, stop for a minute and think about being a girl growing up in that environment – where education isn’t a priority for girls, and where a husband can think he should be able to control his wife. This is the environment Professor Maathai grew up and worked in until she became the first woman in east and central Africa to earn a Ph.D in 1971 and later run a university department. Kind of blows your mind doesn’t she? Academia was the key to her success and it began with her graduating Loreto Girls’ High School in 1959. In 1960 she, along with Barack Obama’s father and 298 other Kenyan students, won scholarships as part of the “Kennedy Airlift” to study at American universities. She earned degrees from the University of Pittsburgh, pursued doctoral studies in Germany and taught veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi, where she received her Ph.D. She became the first woman in Kenya to hold the positions of Chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and be an associate professor. But she wasn’t done yet. Professor Maathai went on to serve on the National Council of Women of Kenya, and then became its chairman for six years. Her work with this organisation brought her into contact with rural women who told her about the environmental conditions that were affecting them. The Kenyan forests they relied upon for firewood for cooking and heating were being cleared for commercial plantations. There was also a scarcity of clean water and nutritious food was limited. This is where her tree-planting idea, that later became the Green Belt Movement (GBM), was born. Professor Maathai suggested that the women plant trees which would reduce soil erosion, improve agriculture in general and provide wood for cooking, food for livestock and material for homes. 47 million trees later, GBM has restored indigenous forests and environments and improved the quality of life for people living in poverty. But it does more than advocate environmentalism. The movement lists four main goals, including the aim of empowering Africans, especially women and girls, and of nurturing their entrepreneurial skills. GBM aims to focus on developing the knowledge and skills of women and girls in Africa in order to create opportunities for themselves and others. The organisation has created activities like tree-planting, beekeeping and food processing which helps create income for young women. It provides training on reproductive health and helps develop care and support centres. However, Professor Maathai’s work with the GBM and her attempts to stop politicians from grabbing land in Kenya, especially forests and destroying them after, brought her into conflict with the authorities in the country, including President Daniel arap Moi (1978-2002). She believed without democracy in Kenya there would be no way to treat the “heaven”-like environment she grew up in responsibly and prevent corrupt politicians from selling the land and the forests that sustained the people.  She was dismissed as mad and foolish by politicians – all men – but she didn’t let that stop her. She and other pro-democracy Kenyans challenged the President in the courts of Kenya in a landmark case. They won a stop against the building of a multimillion pound office development in Uhuru Park. Think of it this way: what would London be like without Hyde Park? Instead of the lush greenery, there was an office building? That’s what Uhuru Park was to Nairobi and the destruction of that haven was something she helped stop. It pissed people off, not the least of which was the President. In 1993, two to three years after she helped stop the office complex, she found herself on a list targeted for assassination. Made by her government. Professor Maathai barricaded herself in her home for three days after finding that list, until the police broke in to arrest her. She and others were charged with treason, among other things, and arrested. They were released when Al Gore and Edward M. Kennedy campaigned for their freedom. Her political activism didn’t stop there, nor did her punishment by the authorities in Kenya – she was beaten up by the police, and lived in fear for her life while political leaders vilified her. However, in the early 1990s she moved into politics. She and her party, Mazingira (the Kenyan Green Party) won 98% of the votes in her constituency, and together with a coalition finally overthrew the thorn in her side, Moi, in 2002. She served as a Junior Environment Minister between 2003 and 2005 in the government of President Mwai Kibaki. In 2004 she became a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for work towards sustainable development, democracy and peace and became the first African woman and environmentalist to win the prize. Her win gave her the influence and publicity to spread her idea of the connection between ecology and democracy through the world. She said of her award: “I believe the Nobel committee was sending a message that protecting and restoring the environment contributes to peace; it is peace work. That was gratifying. I always felt that our work was not simply about planting trees. It was about inspiring people to take charge of their environment, the system that governed them, their lives and their future. With the Prize I realized that the world was listening.”

Picture credit: The Guardian Online