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 10 years with 24 hours notice. Nevertheless, thanks to Maathai’s opposition, foreign investors withdrew their support for the Uhuru Park complex and the project was canceled.
Maathai evolved from Kenya’s most visible political dissident to one of Africa’s leading environmentalists. 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 an 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 However, because of a false, widely-distributed report that Maathai had withdrawn from the presidential race, she received a negligible number of votes.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 disappointment, Maathai continued to try to reform the political process so that government addressed the concerns of ordinary Kenyans.
In 2004, Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize. She died in 2011, leaving a giant and historic legacy for environmentalists, activists, women, and others seeking justice and empowerment throughout the world.