Conservation Hero: Wangari Maathai | One Earth
Conservation Hero: Wangari Maathai

Conservation Hero: Wangari Maathai

Each week One Earth is proud to feature an environmental activist and hero from around the globe who is working to create a world where humanity and nature can coexist in harmony.

Born in 1940, Wangari Maathai was a woman of firsts. The first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, the first female department head at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, and the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize. A self-proclaimed, ‘child of the soil’, Maathai remembers playing as a young girl for hours in the stream next to a big tree near her home, wanting to create a necklace of tadpoles. It was then that her mother instilled in her that trees were ‘God’ and should be respected as such. This teaching would carry throughout her life’s work.

In Kenya, where there was once an overflowing landscape of native trees, British colonization in the 1880’s began intense deforestation practices for building and farming. In an effort to ‘tame the land,’ this practice dried up the region and local river. As Maathai watched her homeland change, she served on the National Council of Women where local villagers’ grievances about not having enough firewood gave her an idea. She recognized that the only way to reverse desertification was to plant trees, and why not plant trees themselves? The Green Belt Movement was born.

Maathai initially went to foresters for advice and they laughed at her, saying she needed a diploma to plant trees. Undeterred, she approached local women and raised awareness that their homeland would soon be a desert if there was no change. She also explained the feedback loop that was beginning to take shape. By having less firewood, the villagers would have less energy to cook wholesome food, which would create a dependence on refined foods loaded with carbohydrates. More carbohydrates in the food means suffering from diseases caused by malnutrition due to the food lacking essential proteins and vitamins. The only way to protect the environment, Maathai knew, was to educate the masses by making them understand the importance of their own resources necessary for survival. 

Initially, the women were left alone because no one at the state level took their organization seriously. Once 6,000 tree nurseries were created however, the government realized the power of their mobilization and began to harass them. Over time, what was revealed was the intersectionality between women’s liberation and climate change. The movement that started out as a tree planting campaign ended up inspiring women to stand up for themselves and their work, freeing them from domineering husbands, village chiefs, and a dangerous president. 

The Green Belt proves that planting trees is simple. The difficulty lies in the narrative that people cannot create change themselves and that help must come from the outside. Millions of planted trees through this program have provided fuel, food, shelter, income, and an improvement to soil and watersheds. It has empowered citizens by giving them hope for peace with one another and with nature. 

Professor Maathai died in 2011 after a battle with ovarian cancer. She will be forever recognized for her tireless struggle for human rights and environmental conservation. In 2012, Wangari Gardens opened in Washington, DC and is a community garden project for local residents which consists of over 55 garden allotments.

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