• A woman turns a tree planting movement into a pro-democracy movement that demands human rights from an African regime.
  • Despite gender discrimination and physical threats to her life she stands up to a dictator, abusive husband and the military and shows people around the world that determination can result in change.
  • Wangari Maathai showed that science and conservation should be in the service of humankind, and not exist to merely understand the world.
  • Regardless of cultural norms, women can break sexist barriers by ignoring obstacles and acting in a manner that suggests ‘rightful living.’

When Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, questions were raised regarding her choice. “Why should an environmentalist receive a prize that is identified with peace and human rights?” people asked. Maathai had become famous for starting the Green Belt Movement in Kenya in the 1970s that had encouraged the planting of trees, but few saw the positive social change she created behind the scenes. She died in 2011, yet her non-compromising attitude towards conservation and democracy remains an inspiration to this day.

Raised in a rural village in the central highlands of Kenya, Maathai ‘s love of the earth began with rolling up her sleeves and getting her hands dirty. While many see this as a chore, Maathai’s experience bordered on the spiritual. “Nothing is more beautiful than cultivating the land at dusk,” she said. “As you remove the weeds and press the earth around the crops you feel content, and wish the light would last longer so you could cultivate more. Earth and water, air and the waning fire of the sun combine to form the essential elements of life and reveal to me my kinship with the soil.”

The majority of Africans must perform this daily task out of necessity to survive, but Maathai saw it as an opportunity to galvanize people for social change. In 1974 her husband campaigned for a seat in the Kenyan Parliament, promising much needed jobs. Maathai saw this as an opportunity to connect her ideas of environmental restoration with jobs for the unemployed. It led to the founding of Envirocare, a business that involved ordinary people planting trees.

The venture failed, but raised enough interest within the United Nations Environment Programme to get her invited to attend the first UN conference on human settlements, known as Habitat. It was from this global platform that Maathai realized the power of eco-politics and her Green Belt Movement was born.

It was a movement to plant millions of trees, but she was not merely an environmentalist who loved trees. She got people to plant trees as a way of healing a devastated landscape. She asked how a poor rural family in Africa is ever supposed to rise out of poverty if a woman must walk hours each day to get firewood from forests that recede farther and farther away each year. “The situation of a woman cutting down the last tree to cook her last meal is one we must avoid,” she said. It’s no wonder Maathai got the Nobel Peace Prize when viewed against this social impact. Science and conservation, at its best, should be in the service of humankind, and not exist to merely understand the world.

Wangari Maathai 2

Emboldened by the success of rallying people around trees, Maathai turned the Green Belt Movement into a pro-democracy movement and confronted the regime of Daniel Arap Moi. For this, she faced both traditional prejudice as a woman and political oppression. During a heated debate around the development of a green area in the capital of Nairobi, President Moi suggested Maathai be a proper woman in the African tradition, respect men and be quiet. But she didn’t. “I knew that we could not live with a political system that killed creativity, nurtured corruption, and produced people who were afraid of their own leaders,” she said. Part of this fear was the threat of physical violence, something Maathai personally experienced many times while protecting public forests that the regime had earmarked for its supporters.

Her husband filed for divorce in 1977, citing Maathai as “too strong-minded for a woman” and that he was “unable to control her.” After the divorce he demanded through his lawyers that she drop his surname – Mathai. She chose instead to add an extra “a” and became Maathai. She creating a new name for herself and obeyed the law, yet showed in a clever way that she was still firmly in control.

Maathai was certainly not afraid of confrontation. During a standoff with soldiers and thugs in a contested forest she was trying to protect, she stood facing rifles and machetes holding a watering can. Stubborn characteristics such as these can spell danger in a tyrant, but Maathai demonstrated that peace is not something to be viewed as weak.

Many people will support a cause monetarily, but to risk one’s life for an important humanitarian or environmental cause takes far more courage as a leader. It went beyond dying for a tree, Maathai was demonstrating the principles of democracy and giving the downtrodden a voice.

Education was a key concern for her and she dispelled the idea that education meant less attachment to the environment. “Education should not take people away from land, but instill in them even more respect for it,” she said. “Educated people are in a position to understand what is being lost. The future of the planet concerns all of us, and we should do what we can to protect it. You don’t need a diploma to plant a tree.”

Maathai taught us how determination can eventually create change if we have enough patience and belief in our cause. She did a lot more than organize groups of local women to plant trees. She also planted seeds of hope for democracy to replace a corrupt, greedy government. She was a leader others wanted to follow, for they saw that she knew instinctively how to get results.

For those who still ask: “What can one person do to make a difference?” here’s a hint: It can be as simple as trees, self-reliance and human endurance.