Wangari Maathai: Environmental visionary dies at 71

Maddy Harland
Tuesday, 27th September 2011

Wangari Maathai recognised that improving the social and economic progress of Kenya went hand in hand with conserving the natural environment. She has now succumbed to her battle with cancer but has left behind a remarkable legacy.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner and environmental campaigner, Wangari Maathai, died aged 71 this week. She founded the non-profit organisation The Green Belt Movement that helped to plant an estimated 45 million trees in Kenya since it was founded in 1977. The environmental benefits of this acheivement have been huge, but Wangari also saw it as an opportunity to create jobs in rural areas where there were none and provide women with vital skills in a culture where they are often regarded as unequal to men. The Green Belt Movement has improved the livelihoods of many women by 'increasing their access to resources like firewood for cooking and clean water', saving hours spent in firewood collecting, as well as preventing desertification and increasing food security.

The Green Belt Movemen, said, "Professor Maathai's departure is untimely and a very great loss to all who knew her – as a mother, relative, co-worker, colleague, role model, and heroine; or who admired her determination to make the world a more peaceful, healthier, and better place."

Wangari Maathai   is also recognized for being a founder and patron of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Billion Tree Campaign. Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director said:  "Wangari Maathai was a force of nature. While others deployed their power and life force to damage, degrade and extract short term profit from the environment, she used hers to stand in their way, mobilize communities and to argue for conservation and sustainable development over destruction." 

In 2004, Proffessor Maathai became the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize 'for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace' showing that her work was so much more than just planting trees. Indeed, Steiner said, "In winning the Nobel Peace Prize, the world caught up with the essence and lifetime understanding of this special person: namely that environmental stability and sustainability will increasingly be crucial for a peaceful world and for over turning poverty, inequality and meeting the rights of women."

The following video tells her story, a story of great courage and leadership, you can also read a synopsis of her life's work here:

We have no doubt that Wangari Maathai was one of the 20th Century world changing figures and her example showed people the world over that small actions by groups of people can indeed make a difference. If you would like to pay tribute to Wangari Maathai, join us and plant a tree in her honour. You can also leave a message on her facebook page like thousands of others have done in the past few hours. Many consider her an 'inspiration', a 'protecter' and perhaps the most touching, a 'mother'.

Our friends at had the pleasure of interviewing Prof. Maathai in 2008, for their podcast. Listen to Part One and Part Two to hear her talk about her life and work in her own words.