Starting with a small tree nursery in her back yard, Wangari Maathai (d. 2011) launched Kenya's Green Belt Movement in 1977. A grassroots tree planting organization composed primarily of women, the Green Belt Movement aims to curtail the devastating social and environmental effects of deforestation and desertification.
Maathai began her efforts not only to help curb soil erosion, but also to help the burgeoning population become self-sustaining in its use of fuel wood and to create an income generating activity for rural communities. There are now 5,000 grassroots nurseries throughout Kenya and over 20 million trees have been planted. Meanwhile, the Green Belt Movement conducts seminars for those interested in replicating their approach and an international chapter has been founded to expand the movement beyond Africa.
In the late 1980s Maathai led a courageous fight against the construction of a skyscraper scheduled for construction in the middle of Uhuru park, Nairobi's most important public space. Her vocal opposition to the location of the proposed complex led the government of President Daniel Arap Moi to label both Maathai and the Green Belt Movement "subversive." She was vilified in parliament and in the press and forced to vacate her office of ten years with twenty-four hours notice. Nevertheless, thanks to Maathai's opposition, foreign investors withdrew their support for the Uhuru Park complex and the project was canceled.
In recent years, Maathai has evolved from one of Africa's leading environmentalists to one of Kenya's most visible political dissidents. Her willingness to speak out on critical social matters has on various occasions provoked the police to break into her home, place her under arrest, club her into unconsciousness and otherwise "discourage" her from engaging in political activity.
Always a pioneer, in 1997 Maathai decided to run for the Kenyan presidency against the entrenched incumbent. However, because of a false, widely distributed report that Maathai had withdrawn from the presidential race, she received a negligible number of votes. Despite this tremendous disappointment, Maathai continues to try to reform the political process so that government addresses the concerns of ordinary Kenyans.
In 2007, Time Magazine named Maathai one of their "Heroes of the Environment." Read full article
Goldman Environmental Foundation
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