Wangari Maathai – Saving the environment one tree at a time

 At a special ceremony in Copenhagen, where negotiations are intensifying for an effective agreement at the UN Climate Change Conference, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon inducts Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize laureate and green advocate Wangari Maathai (shown speaking at ceremony) as a UN Messenger of Peace with a special focus on the environment and climate change. Professor Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, founded the grassroots group known as the Green Belt Movement, which has planted more than 40 million trees on community lands across Africa and worked to improve environmental conservation and reduce poverty.

History was made in 2004 when Wangari Muta Maathai became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”
Her legacy lives on. Professor Wangari Muta Maathai was vocal about the plight of the Kenyan rural women, and championed their cause by planting trees, a connection no one had made before. For her, poverty and environmental degradation went hand-in-hand, compounding each other.

The environmentalist-cum-human rights activist believed that women suffered most from the effects of deforestation and bore the brunt of walking long distances in search of water and firewood. They toiled away on farms and reaped a pittance for their efforts because the farms were barren due to deforestation, the result of relentless tree-cutting. Maathai linked the environment to peace, stressing that people needed to be mindful of the environment they lived in and that conflict was the direct result of resource mismanagement. Planting trees helped — a little. To tackle the problem, Maathai prescribed going to the root of the problem, which was bad governance and unequal distribution of resources. She was vocal about the issues, which led to her being beaten up, insulted and arrested, but she was unstoppable.

When The Progressive magazine asked her how she stayed the course despite harsh criticism from the Moi government, she said: “This is what the government did not like because the ruling
elite were the beneficiary of these malpractices. And so their reaction was to intimidate, arrest and harass, in the hope that I would give up, or the people I worked with would give up, and the
movement would die. We knew they were greedy and corrupt. So it was a matter of fighting corruption and fighting greed among the ruling elite.” She formed The Greenbelt Movement in 1977 to encourage rural women to plant trees and paid them for every tree they planted. Today, the organisation not only focuses on trees, but it is also involved in community empowerment and education seminars, besides tackling advocacy issues on climate change.

US President Barack Obama said in a statement that the work of the Greenbelt Movement was “a testament to the power of grassroot organising, proof that one person’s simple idea — that a
community should come together to plant trees — can make a difference, first in one village, then in one nation, and now across Africa.” Amid her struggles, Maathai’s efforts to save the planet one tree at a time were being recognised worldwide. In addition to being the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, she received numerous awards, including the Earth Hall of Fame in 2010, The Nelson Mandela Award for Health & Human Rights in 2007 and The Indira Gandhi International Award for Peace, Disarmament & Development in 2006.

In her Nobel acceptance speech, Maathai emphasised that everyone has a duty to make positive change: “Let us embrace democratic governance, protect human rights and protect our environment. I am confident that we shall rise to the occasion. I have always believed that solutions to most of our problems must come from us.” Her love for nature started early in her childhood. She wrote in her autobiography, Unbowed, that she would be at the farm all day, cultivating the land, oblivious of time. She would go home at dusk, not because she was tired, but because it was growing dark and she could not tell the weeds from the crops. In 2005, Grist magazine asked Maathai what really drew her to the environment. She said: “When I was a young person, I grew up in a land that was green, a land that was very pure and a land that was clean. I remember going to a small stream very close to our homestead to fetch water and bringing it to my mother. We used to drink that water straight from the river. I had this fascination with what I saw in the river.”

She was a bright student, earning herself a scholarship to study biology in the US in 1964 after she finished secondary school. Her choice to study biology in the US was rooted in her love for
nature. Her stay in the US was an eye-opener, as she had never left Kenya before. She later earned a Master’s in Biological Sciences. At a time when many women did not attain great heights in education, she became the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate. Her working career started at the University of Nairobi as an assistant lecturer in Veterinary Anatomy, steadily rising through the ranks to eventually become chairperson of the department in 1976. She became an associate professor the following year. Let us embrace democratic governance, protect human rights and protect our environment. I am confident that we shall rise to the occasion.

In 1976, Maathai joined the National Council of Women of Kenya, an umbrella organisation coordinating Kenyan women’s activities, and became its chairperson in 1981. She held the position for six years, during which the idea of empowering women through tree-planting was born. Her interactions with rural women revealed that their problems were rooted in depleted resources. Planting trees was the simplest way of solving what was a big issue, and a painless process that anyone could do as it needed no special skills or technology. To date, The Green Belt Movement has planted over 50 million trees in various parts of the country. Although the number may seem daunting, she often said in interviews that it didn’t happen overnight. They started with just seven trees.
In an interview with American writer Marianne Schnall, Maathai said that although the movement started as an initiative for women, men and children soon joined.

She attributed her perseverance to two things: her background in biology and her stay in the US, during which she observed how civic unions brought forth change for the good of the country.
That ingrained in her the spirit for change, and biology helped her understand how nature works and how our actions affect the natural order of things. When she came back home, she watched in dismay the ongoing degradation of Kenya’s environment. The stream she drank water from as a child was drying up. The land was not as green as it had been before. Produce from farms were not as bountiful as before. “I know that had I not left my home, had I not gone to other parts of the world and seen some of the efforts that were being made in other societies, I would probably have felt discouraged and abandoned the crusade,” she told Schnall.

In 2002, Maathai taught as the Dorothy McCluskey Visiting Fellow for Conservation at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She also entered and won the race for Member of Parliament for Tetu Constituency in the General Elections that year. She was appointed assistant minister for Environment in 2003 — a position she resigned from in 2005. She vied for MP again during the next elections, but lost. She said that change took longer to effect while in government because of bureaucracy as opposed to civic positions. Her conservation efforts went beyond Kenya. Maathai was invited to be the Goodwill Ambassador to the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem by the 11 Heads of State in the Congo region. Two years later, she participated in the launching of the Congo Basin Forest Fund, which focuses on protecting the region’s forests. She was a flag bearer at the 2006 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony. Chilean writer Isabel Allende— another flag bearer at the ceremony, said in her TED talk in 2008 that being in Maathai’s presence was a great moment for her.

Maathai was a co-founder of the Nobel Women’s Initiative with other women peace laureates. Their aim was to use the spotlight the award gave them to champion peace globally. Maathai succumbed to ovarian cancer in September 2011. In their condolence mesage, Nobel Peace women laureates said her fearless strength in adversity, her creative approach to building a peaceful, healthy planet and her hard work to inspire and empower women would live on. Apart from her autobiography, she authored other books: The Green Belt Movement: The Challenge for Africa and Replenishing the Earth. She has also been the subject of numerous books and documentaries about the environment. In her honour, The Collaborative Partnership on Forests launched The Wangari Maathai Award, giving US$20,000 (KES 20 million) to someone who addresses issues that affect world forests. Her famous hummingbird story is inspirational: The forest was burning and all the animals, including big ones like the elephant and the lion, ran for cover and watched from afar. While they pondered what they could do, the hummingbird carried water in its little beak from the river to the burning forest, to and fro, on and on.

In 2016, Maathai and her legacy were immortalised. On March 3, the African Union introduced Wangari Maathai Day to be celebrated annually together with the African Environment Day. This would commemorate her efforts in promoting environmental conservation. On March 11, her daughter launched the Wangari Maathai Foundation. During Mashujaa Day celebrations in the same year, former Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero announced that Forest Road would be renamed Prof Wangari Maathai Road in honour of the Laureate.

Moral: Change does not require much; all it requires is the best one can do, however little or insignificant it might seem. Through the many trees she planted and the many people she inspired, Maathai’s legacy lives on.


  • The Green Belt Movement official site
  • The official website for the Nobel Prize
  • Wangari Maathai Interview, The Progressive Magazine
  • Wangari Maathai, Unbowed: A Memoir
  • An interview with Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, Grist Magazine
  • Isabel Allende: Tales of Passion, TED Talk
  • Nobel’s Women Initiative
  • The Congo Basin Forest Fund
  • The White House official website
Share this post

Comment on post

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *