Wangari Maathai: activist, environmentalist and mother to a movement

27 September 2011

[flickr-photo:id=4188185492, class=right, size=m, caption=At a special ceremony at the climate change talks in Copenhagen - Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon inducts Wangari Maathai as a UN Messenger of Peace with a special focus on the environment and climate change. Photo by UN Photo/Mark Garten]

It is with great sadness that I heard of the death of Kenyan environmental and political activist Wangari Maathai aged 71. She has been a great champion of why environment matters for people across the planet, and especially for women and poor groups in Africa. Like a tall spreading tree, perhaps an Acacia, her influence and courage have provided nourishment and shelter for a wide range of activities in Kenya and beyond.

The Green Belt Movement, founded by Wangari in 1977, which mobilized mostly women to plant millions of trees in order to produce wood for fuel use and to combat soil erosion, and improvements in broader landscape management in Kenya are just two of her lasting legacies. She has also shown exceptional leadership as a professor, government minister, and activist, being recognized in her Nobel Peace prize in 2004.

Wangari came from a family background that valued education and made her hungry for understanding, driving her to become the first woman in east and central Africa to win a doctorate in Anatomy. Her scientific training gave her a great foundation for action, which her powerful moral and human values could shape for the common good.

Her drive also came from deep personal convictions and first-hand experience of how the Kenyan environment was changing. In her autobiography Unbowed she recounts how rainfall around Mount Kenya had become far less predictable since her childhood.

Unbowed says it all. Her readiness to defy convention and contest corrupt, greed-driven politicians, only too keen to grab land and forests for their own gain, at the expense of ordinary folk comes through clearly both in her account of her life and in her actions. She was beaten and arrested often for her environmental campaigning.

But she also had no illusions about the common farmer, and recognized they also needed information, education, incentives and convincing of the need to invest in soil and trees. The Green Belt Movement did this through a strong grassroots approach, with local people trained to talk to their fellow villagers about the reasons for erosion and the drying up of water sources, and the rationale for tree planting.

Wangari recognised rural women’s primary interest and role in maintaining a productive landscape, for assuring food needs as well as making daily household necessities – water and fuel – easier to collect. Their approach is wonderfully illustrated in a documentary Taking Roots: The vision of Wangari Maathai.

Wangari Maathai: storyteller

I was fortunate to meet her on several occasions, and each time I found I had acquired new confidence and inspiration from Wangari’s joy-filled, straight-forward manner and practical approach. She had a wonderful capacity for telling stories to capture a dilemma, and show how to move forward. One I liked in particular was her characterization of life’s choices being akin to being at the central bus station. “It really makes sense to be sure you catch the right bus,” she said. “Take a bit of time looking around before you jump on. It may not be the speediest of buses, but as long as you’re going in the right direction, you’ll get there in the end. If you’re too impatient and jump on one going in the wrong direction – fast or slow – you’ll lose a lot of ground!”

We need more Wangaris, with the strength and power to speak out and shame those more interested in individual gain than collective good. Like a spreading Acacia, she and the Green Belt Movement have nurtured hundreds of thousands of new actors with a thirst for environmental and social justice. So, while mourning her loss, we salute the next generation who can point to her example and know they are travelling in the right direction.

Find out more about the Forest Governance Learning Group, a network of teams in Africa and Asia who believe that solutions to forestry problems lie in increasing the power of local people to make informed decisions over how forests are managed.