Linking Present to Past

Wangari Maahtai

Africa’s “Mother of Trees”
(pronounced wan-GAH-ree mah-DHEYE)


Dr. Maahtai is leader and founder of the international “Green Belt” movement which seeks to provide a sustainable livelihood for people by conserving places that have been home to them through the centuries. It is an educational movement as well, helping people understand the connection between environmental degradation and a multitude of other issues, such as soil erosion, drought, hunger, and poverty.

In the fall of 2004, the Nobel Peace Prize committee gave Dr. Wangari Maahtai its prestigious prize by saying that she “represents an example and a source of inspiration for everyone in Africa fighting for sustainable development, democracy and peace.” In another statement they said that “peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment.” Wangari is the first African woman to win this prize. Reflecting on the honor, Wangari Maathia said, “People are fighting over water, over food, and over other natural resources. When our resources become scarce, we fight over them. In managing our resources and in sustainable development, we plant the seeds of peace.” And, “for the first time, the Nobel Prize committee has made the necessary link between sustainable environment and democracy.”

The Green Belt organization was begun in 1977 in response to the devastating deforestation of Kenya’s forest cover, now 2.9% of what it once was. Wangari remembers water cascading down from Kenya’s forests before the trees were cut down near her home, and that these trees preserved water. In poor regions of the world, those living near a forest use it as fuel for heat, for food and for water. Maathia said that cutting-down trees creates a ripple effect resulting in “drought, malnutrition, famine and death.” In the 1970s and 80s, she also “discovered that corrupt government agents were responsible for much of the deforestation by illegally selling off land and trees to well-connected developers.” At that time, Dr. Maathai, Kenya’s first female PhD., was chair of a department at the University of Nairobi’s Veterinary Anatomy Department. She also had joined Kenya’s National Council of Women where she introduced a grass roots program that hired the poor to help improve the natural environment of their areas, including the planting of over 6,000 tree seedlings. The idea was to plant protective “green belts” to help preserve the land. Farmers, 70% of whom were women, were encouraged to join the movement. To win their participation, Maathai developed ways to ensure that the green belts would generate income. In many cases, the movement let women own the trees they planted and the products from them. She also created technical training so people could take jobs as nursery managers, environmental program teachers, and forest rangers. “We try to make women see they can do something worthwhile; they can build, or destroy, the environment.”

Although initially the Green Belt Movement’s tree planting activities did not address issues of democracy and peace, it soon became clear that responsible governance of the environment was impossible without democratic freedom. Therefore, the movement encouraged people to challenge widespread abuses of power, corruption, and environmental mismanagement. A tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya. In 1990 Dr. Maathia became a national figure when she challenged the ruling party’s plan to use the only green space in downtown Nairobi for a skyscraper and shopping mall. Her cause was won through legal battles and growing public reaction against the project. But the government of Daniel arap Moi labeled Maathai and her movement subversive. In 1992, when Wangari initiated sit-ins and a hunger strike in support of political prisoners, some of whom were prisoners of conscience, she was beaten and jailed. Once she even had to go into hiding.

After Mr. Moi lost power in the 2002 election, Wangari won a seat in Parliament where she sits today. Wangari has spoken out in support of victims of violent ethnic clashes in Western Kenya, and is a strong advocate for women’s rights in Kenya. She travels throughout the world campaigning for womens' rights and those of the oppressed. She has won numerous awards, including the “Right Livelihood Award,” often called “the alternative Nobel Peace Prize.” In Kenya, her Green Belt movement has planted 30 million trees. Through her efforts, women across Africa have planted tens of millions more, helping stop the deforestation that has stripped much of the continent bare. Wangari Maahtai has said, “As household managers in rural and urban areas of the developing world, women are the first to encounter the effects of ecological stress. It forces them to walk farther to get wood for cooking and heating, to search for clean water and to find new sources of food as old ones disappear.” A woman farmer once praised Maathai by saying of her,“she is stubborn. She’s made of the same hardwood trees that grew here.” Other of her admirers believe Maathai will in fact be reborn as a tree!

To find out about the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize  click here

For a list of other Women Nobel Peace Prize winners  click here

To read the essay “Peace as an Early Woman’s Issue”  click here

To learn about a movement In India dedicated to preserving the forests  click here

To get a beautiful poster of Wangari Maathai
(one of a set of 12 internationally-renowned women),
and a Curriculum Guide for the posters  click here  

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
Click for Author Information

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Women in World History Curriculum