WANGARI MAATHAI: Environmentalist and first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
During the month of March Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance, and Ujamaa Seeds are honoring Wangari Maathai, Delores Huerta. Winona LaDuke, and Vandana Shiva, four inspiring women who have made an enormous difference in agriculture, environmental activism, and more. Hopefully their stories inspire you to honor the Earth and preserve it for future generations.
For the week of March 5 - 11, we honor and feature Dr. Wangari Maathai.
Dr. Maathai Maathai observed that rural Kenyan women were struggling to find adequate food, firewood, and water, because these resources were impacted by deforestation and insufficient rain.
As a biologists she recognized the links between food insecurity, ecological circumstances, and eroded soil conditions. Dr. Maathai encouraged tree planting to restore the degraded rural environment and reduce soil erosion.
“When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope."
- Wangari Maathai
To reduce Kenyan rural poverty, in 1977 Dr. Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement and grew a tree planting crusade nationwide to improve the environment and safeguard human rights. The Greenbelt Movement takes a bottom-up approach to community empowerment, environmental conservation, and improved livelihoods. The Movement is best known for planting 51 million trees, but it has many other projects as well, including protection of public lands from private land grabs, and training farmers in watershed-based practices to grow and harvest native fruits and vegetables suited to local conditions.
The movement’s achievements include succession training spread through communities and the Community Empowerment and Education program focused on the environment, natural resources, and civic empowerment. Dr. Maathai’s daughter, Wanjira Mathai, is on the board of the Green Belt Movement-US, which continues work in tree planting and water harvesting, climate change, mainstream advocacy, and gender livelihood and advocacy.
EARLY LIFE and EDUCATION
Dr. Wangarĩ Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri County in the central highlands of Kenya on April 1st, 1940. She spent much of her childhood in the rural Kenyan countryside and later began her higher education studies in the United States. She completed her Bachelor of Science in biology in 1964 at Mount St. Scholastica College, she continued her education at the University of Pittsburgh and completed a master's in biological sciences.
In 1971 Dr. Maathai became the first woman in East Africa to obtain a doctorate, receiving a Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi in veterinary anatomy. Dr. Maathai became a chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and served as an associate professor from 1976-1977 for the University of Nairobi.
Dr. Maathai was an active member of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK) from 1976-1987, she served as a chairman from 1981-1987. Dr.Mathaai introduced concepts of community-based tree planting to address community concerns about deteriorating environmental conditions in the region. She further developed this idea into the grassroots organization known as the Green Belt Movement.
ORGANIZATIONS & AWARDS
Dr. Mathaai held deep commitments to environmental conservation and development, she served many integral roles, such as:
- Director, Kenya Red Cross (1973–1980)
- Founding member, GROOTS International (1985)
- Representative of Tetu constituency in Kenya’s parliament (2002–2007)
- Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources in Kenya’s ninth parliament (2003–2007)
- In 2004 Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in leading the Green Belt Movement and for providing a peaceful and equitable methodology as it pertains to conservation.
- Goodwill Ambassador to the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem by the eleven Heads of State in the Congo region (2005)
- Founder of the Nobel Women’s Initiative (developed in collaboration with her sister laureates: Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Betty Williams, and Mairead Corrigan) (2006)
- Co-Chair, Congo Basin Forest Fund (2007–2011)
- Appointed to the Millennium Development Goals Advocacy Group (2010)
- Trustee of the Karura Forest Environmental Education Trust (2010)
- Founder of the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies (2010)
- UN Messenger of Peace (2009–2011)
2004 NOBEL PEACE PRIZE AWARDEE
In 2004 Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in leading the Green Belt Movement and for providing a peaceful and equitable methodology as it pertains to conservation. This is a significant achievement seeing how she was the first African woman to ever receive this award. The Nobel Prize Committee congratulated her for her accomplishments in promoting "sustainable development, democracy and peace."
Through the grassroots actions of Dr. Maathai, she successfully mobilized women and environmentalists to share collective, intersectional space — redefining the work of conservation forever. She was also noted for bridging the gap between local and global action, thus generating a holistic ecological perspective.
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