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The Legacy of Wangari Maathai

Among the most prominent environmental activists of the last century is the late Professor Wangari Maathai, who founded the Green Belt Movement and inspired hundreds of thousands of people around the world to push for environmental progress. In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of her 1991 Goldman Prize win—and the 10th anniversary of her passing—we’re remembering Wangari’s rich background and innumerable contributions to both the environment and human rights.   Determined from the Beginning Wangari Maathai with the Ouroboros after winning the 1991 Goldman Prize for Africa Born in 1940 in Nyeri, Kenya, Wangari spent her childhood in the Kenyan countryside and her young adult life in the United States. She studied biology at Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas, then obtained a master’s degree in biological sciences from the University of Pittsburgh. After returning to Kenya and pursuing her PhD at the University of Nairobi, Wangari became the first woman in East Africa to receive a doctorate.  In the 1970s and ‘80s, along with teaching at the University of Nairobi and serving as a department chair, Wangari was an active member of the National Council of Women of Kenya, an organized group of rural Kenyan women fighting for women’s rights. Women came to the council in part to search for solutions to the environmental degradation they were witnessing in their villages; deforestation and desertification had caused many of the resources women relied on for food and clean water to dwindle.  Fueled by her knowledge of biology and innate passion for helping others, Wangari decided to take action.  Solving a Problem, Starting a Movement Wangari had two goals in mind: to help restore environmental resources and give women the ability to support their families in a self-sufficient, sustainable way. To achieve her goals, she came up with a practical but impactful idea: to grow seedlings and plant trees. The trees would counteract the effects of deforestation, bind the soil, and improve rainwater sequestration, in addition to providing food and firewood—and, therefore, a livelihood for local families.  Wangari’s plan inspired the formation of the Green Belt Movement in 1977, an organization dedicated to environmental conservation and poverty reduction in Kenya. As the work of the movement evolved, Wangari realized that the environmental issues impoverished communities faced were a direct result of bigger problems, like governmental corruption and a history of disenfranchisement.  To help address the root causes of these... Read Blog Post