Human rights are not things that are put on the table for people to enjoy. These are things you fight for and then you protect. –Wangari Maathai
Born in rural Kenya in 1940, Wangari Maathai was a powerhouse of a woman. She was an activist, professor, author, and politician. She was a champion of democracy, human rights, and an outspoken advocate for the environment. In 2004, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”
Maathai did so much and yet her legacy can be summed up in one powerful symbol: the tree.
It was during the early 70s that Maathai came into her role as an activist. By then, she noticed how Kenya’s commercial plantations were not only devastating the environment but also creating hardship for Kenya’s poorest populations. The plantations had caused vast deforestation that was affecting people’s livelihoods: rural women were reporting that streams had dried up and that their food supplies were not as stable. In the meantime, unemployment was rising.
The Green Belt Movement
Noticing the link between poverty and environmental degradation, Mathaai founded Africa’s Green Belt Movement in 1977. This organization had a simple solution: train local communities to plant trees.
Maathai started by working with women, recognizing that it was poor, rural woman who often suffered the most from the damaged environment. By planting trees, the women not only received an income but also found a shared sense of purpose. In the meantime, the trees created renewable resources and helped repair the country’s ravaged land.
The Movement’s Impact
Through this simple yet ingenious idea, Maathai created impactful and long-lasting change. Since the organization’s founding, more than 30 million trees have been planted and the movement has spread to over 30 African countries. Now, there are over 5,000 community-run tree nurseries Africa that receive support from the Green Belt Movement.
Maathai worked relentlessly throughout her life, advocating for rural populations and standing up to corrupt political entities. She understood that a government which did not care for its land wasn’t serving its people. She would go on to run for Kenyan parliament, and eventually served as the Assistant Minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources.
Maathai passed away in 2011 from ovarian cancer. But she left us with much inspiration. Her efforts show how people’s livelihoods and ecological stability go hand in hand, and how entire communities can unite to repair both. She taught us that while no one can go it alone, a simple idea can truly make a world of difference.