Wangari Maathai has planted her last tree, but she will never stop cultivating inspiration in the hearts of all who care about justice for the earth and its people. Sunday night, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize died at the age of 71.
Long before the environmental movement took hold, Wangari Maathai was planting trees. As a child in rural Kenya, she watched forests being cleared to make way for huge plantations. Early on she understood the role of these forests in preserving biodiversity and conserving water. She saw that loss of clean water and firewood for cooking and heating was having a devastating impact on families. So in 1977, she started the Green Belt Movement. The idea was simple: plant trees.
Hundreds of thousands of women and men planted 47 million trees. They restored damaged environments and lifted families from poverty. The movement grew to become a major force for peace and democracy. In its tribute to her, the Green Belt Movement’s site stresses, “The planting of trees became an entry-point for a larger social, economic, and environmental agenda.”
In a 2006 speech (video below) in Boston’s Faneuil Hall, Wangari Maathai said, “We started recognizing that the government, or those who were in power, instead of being custodians of these resources and managing these resources responsibly, instead of promoting equity and justice, they were very busy acquiring wealth themselves. They were practicing corruption. They were greedy. They were not responsible.”
Even the Smallest Can Play a Role
The Green Belt Movement became part of the pro-democracy movement calling for more responsible government. Professor Maathai and her staff were jailed, harassed and intimidated because, as she said, “those who were in power did not want to be exposed and did not want to be called into account.”
The fierce campaigner for justice never backed down. She was elected to Parliament in 2002 and became Deputy Minister for the Environment in 2003. When violence erupted after the 2007 Kenyan elections, Professor Maathai helped to mediate peace. She and the Green Belt Movement played a role in making sure the health of the environment was included in the new constitution.
Wangari Maathai was also a tireless worker on the global stage, working for peace, justice and equity. As her stature grew, she never lost sight of what one person can do to change the world. For the animated movie Dirt! she told the story of the hummingbird.
When fire breaks out in a huge forest, all the animals flee, except the hummingbird. The little bird flies back and forth, its beak filled with water. The other animals are terrified into inaction. When they ask what the hummingbird can possibly do with its small beak, the little bird answers, “I am doing the best I can.”
Professor Maathai adds, “I certainly donít want to be like the animals watching as the planet goes down the drain. I will be a hummingbird. I will do the best I can.”
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