Green Gazette: Wangari Maathai

The Genius of Wangari Maathai who received the 2004 Nobel Peace Price for her tree planting campaign in Kenya.

| April/May 2005

The Genius of Wangari Maathai

Several prominent Norwegians have questioned the Nobel Committee for awarding the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize to Wangari Maathai. Why honor environmental activism in an era when war, terrorism and nuclear proliferation are even more urgent problems, they wonder.

What they miss is Dr. Maathai’s special genius.

The first time we met Maathai was five years ago in an airy guesthouse beneath towering Jacaranda trees on the outskirts of Nairobi. At the time, the Green Belt Movement she founded nearly 25 years earlier was still struggling against the ruthless political regime of President Daniel arap Moi.

As we then witnessed her movement in action at the village level, we felt privileged to get a taste of Maathai’s genius. National Public Radio commentator Daniel Schorr has said that Maathai may someday be seen as an African Mother Theresa. But, make no mistake, Maathai’s life is not about taking care of others. It is about something else

Maathai planted seven trees on Earth Day in 1977 to honor Kenyan women environmental leaders. Then, recognizing that deforestation could only be reversed if village women throughout her country became tree planters themselves, she launched the Green Belt Movement. Government foresters laughed at her idea of enlisting villagers; it took trained foresters to plant trees, they told her. Because Maathai didn’t listen, today Kenya has 30 million more trees.

Maathai’s genius is in recognizing the interrelatedness of our local-to-global problems and that they can only be addressed as citizens themselves find their voices and courage to act. Maathai saw in the Green Belt Movement’s tree planting both a good in and of itself and an entry point — a way in which women could discover they were not powerless in the face of autocratic husbands, village chiefs and a ruthless president. By creating their own tree nurseries — at least 6,000 throughout Kenya — and planting trees, women began to control their own firewood, an enormous power shift that also freed up time for other pursuits.

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