Remembering Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai. (© Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images)

Today the conservation movement lost a great hero and visionary with the passing of Africa’s first woman Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Wangari Maathai.

But it’s not just the conservation movement that has lost a treasure — Wangari was ahead of her time in linking the health of our environment to human well-being. Wangari used the analogy of a three-legged African stool as the support on which human well-being depended. The three legs were the environment, democratic space and peace.

Wangari started with a simple idea to improve the lives of poor rural women in Kenya by planting trees. She saw the degradation of the native forests in Kenya and the impact this had on communities, especially the women: streams and rivers that dried up, lack of firewood, erosion of the soils. The world had not yet started to talk about food security and water security, but she saw the linkage of these things to the health of the environment.

Living in an African country under the yoke of a corrupt political system, she also recognized that things could not change without people being empowered to organize and create “democratic space” and good governance. It was this that brought her to conflict with the dictatorship of former President Moi and the political establishment. But in spite of arrests and beatings, she persisted with peaceful protest and civil disobedience.

As a result of her vision, millions of trees have been planted and women around the world have been inspired and mobilized to demand democracy, human rights, good governance and a healthy environment. It is for this achievement that her work and inspiration were recognized through the award of the Nobel Peace Prize.

But more than her vision, what made Wangari stand out were her humanity and the warmth of her personality, her smile, the twinkle in her eye and her laugh. There are few that can bring these things together in support of a vision and a cause in the way that Wangari Maathai was able. She was truly a master communicator; as she stood alone on a stage, she could make a thousand people fall in love with her in five minutes and be captivated by her simple and powerful message.

As the world mourns her loss, we must also celebrate her life. At the end of many speeches, she told a story about a forest fire. All the big animals stood around and did nothing — all except a little hummingbird, who flew frantically back and forth from a stream to the fire, each time carrying but one drop of water. All the other animals mocked the hummingbird for the futility of its efforts, but the humming bird replied, “I’m doing the best that I can.” That is what Wangari would want all of us to keep doing.

Chris Tuite is CI’s senior advisor for the Carbon Fund. He was previously director of the Green Belt Movement’s U.S. office for three years.


  1. Kmarland says

    I’ve always been impressed by how Maathai combined two seemingly unrelated issues (women’s rights and environmentalism) so seamlessly. I also love the emphasis she always gave to the actions of the individual. It seems more important than ever lately that people remember their own actions can and do make a real difference.

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