The tree woman

Wangari Maathai, the woman who planted 30 million trees.
“It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated. So we must stand up for what we believe in.”

Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) founded the Green Party of Kenya and received the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize in October. As a Nobel Peace Laureate, Maathai joined a group of revolutionary leaders such as Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Rigoberta Menchu.

“This is a great day for Kenya and especially for members of the Green Belt Movement and the global green movement,” said Maathai in a statement from Nairobi. “It is also a wonderful opportunity to help inspire the nations of the world toward the goals of environmental sustainability, human rights, gender equality and peace. On behalf of all African women, I want to express my profound appreciation for this honor, which will serve to encourage women in Kenya, in Africa and around the world to raise their voices and not to be deterred.”

Maathai outlines in her book, The Green Belt Movement (Lantern Books), the transformative process of teaching women to plant trees over the past three decades. By planting trees in groupings of 1,000 or more, green belts began to reclaim the ecosystems of Kenya that were rapidly eroding.

While nearly 30 million trees have been planted, the Green Belt Movement is much more than an environmental one — it’s a broader, deeper Green movement. Unemployed, uneducated women learned technical agricultural skills to improve their economic situation through sustainable means. Representatives from many other African countries have come to learn how to implement similar movements to prevent deforestation at home.

Maathai was repeatedly imprisoned for protesting for the end to a single-party state. When Kenya allowed new political parties to form, Maathai founded the Mazingira Green Party. In 2002, Maathai was elected to parliament after running as a Green. In 2003, the Kenyan president appointed Maathai Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife.

“The issues of good governance are issues that are still needing a lot of work in this continent,” said Maathai. “And I know that this prize has given me a special responsibility as spokesperson, not only here in Kenya, but in the whole of Africa. And there is plenty to be done.”