Wangari Maathai – Human Rights Profile

The Legacy of Wangari Maathai: A Trailblazing Environmental and Human Rights Defender.

This thematic quarter we look at Human Rights and the Environment – Our focus for this Month is Wangari Maathai.

Wangari Maathai the renowned founder of the Green Belt Movement and the recipient of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, made significant contributions to both environmental conservation and human rights. Her impactful journey is exemplified in her four authored books: “The Green Belt Movement,” “Unbowed: A Memoir,” “The Challenge for Africa,” and “Replenishing the Earth.” Her life’s work also became the subject of the documentary film “Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai” (Marlboro Productions, 2008).

Born in 1940 in Nyeri, a rural region of Kenya, Wangari Maathai embarked on an extraordinary academic journey. She became the first woman in East and Central Africa to hold a doctorate degree. Her remarkable achievements continued as she assumed the positions of chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and associate professor in 1976 and 1977, respectively, becoming the first woman to do so in the region.

Professor Wangari Maathai’s dedication extended beyond academia. She actively participated in the National Council of Women of Kenya from 1976 to 1987 and served as its chairman from 1981 to 1987. During her tenure, she introduced the concept of community-based tree planting. This idea evolved into the Green Belt Movement (GBM), an organization committed to poverty reduction and environmental conservation through tree planting. She was driven by a perceived connection between environmental degradation and poverty and conflict. She mobilized thousands of women and men to plant tens of millions of trees throughout Kenya.

I believe the Nobel committee was sending a message that protecting and restoring the environment contributes to peace; it is peace work. . .. I always felt that our work was not simply about planting trees. It was about inspiring people to take charge of their environment, the system that governed them, their lives, and their future.

Wangari Maathai’s impact transcended national borders. She was a recognized figure in the global struggle for democracy, human rights, and environmental preservation. Her voice resonated at the United Nations, where she addressed various sessions and represented women during special meetings of the General Assembly related to the Earth Summit. Professor Maathai also contributed to the work of the Commission for Global Governance and the Commission on the Future.

Sustainable management of the resources is only possible if we practice good governance, which calls for respect for the rule of law, respect for human rights, a willingness to give space and a voice to the weak and the more vulnerable in our societies; that we respect the voice of the minority, even while accepting the decision of the majority, and respect diversity. Good governance seeks justice and equity for all irrespective of race, religion, gender, and any other parameters, which man uses to discriminate and exclude. Good governance is indeed inclusive and seeks participatory democracy.

In the political arena, Professor Maathai served as the representative of the Tetu constituency in Kenya’s parliament from 2002 to 2007. During her term, she held the position of Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources in Kenya’s ninth parliament from 2003 to 2007. She fought for women’s rights, democratic space, multipartyism, against corruption, land grabbing, and misogyny. Her influence extended further as she was appointed Goodwill Ambassador to the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem in 2005 by the eleven Heads of State in the Congo region.

In 2006, Wangari Maathai, alongside fellow laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Betty Williams, and Mairead Corrigan, founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative. The following year, she was appointed co-chair of the Congo Basin Fund, a collaborative effort by the British and Norwegian governments to safeguard the Congo forests.

In recognition of her unwavering commitment to environmental causes, the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General named Professor Maathai a UN Messenger of Peace in December 2009, with a specific focus on environmental issues and climate change. In 2010, she was appointed to the Millennium Development Goals Advocacy Group, a panel comprising political leaders, activists, and business figures dedicated to garnering global support for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Furthermore, in 2010, Professor Maathai became a trustee of the Karura Forest Environmental Education Trust, established to protect public lands she had passionately championed for nearly two decades. That same year, in collaboration with the University of Nairobi, she founded the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies (WMI), designed to bridge academic research in fields such as land use, forestry, agriculture, resource-based conflicts, and peace studies with the principles of the Green Belt Movement.

My childhood memory of Professor Wangari Maathai, is of a woman of remarkable courage who fearlessly challenged the KANU regime of then-President Daniel Arap Moi. One powerful story I heard often that comes to recollection was about — the protest at Uhuru Park.  It was a defiant stand against the looming construction of a towering 60-storey edifice, the Kenya Times Media Trust business complex.

Uhuru Park was, as Prof Maathai wrote in her memoir, Unbowed, “a large green swath … [with] lawns, paths, boating lake, and stands of trees” that provided “millions of people in Nairobi with a natural environment for recreation, gatherings, quiet walks, or simply a breath of fresh air”.

The government, unyielding in its stance, forced Wangari Maathai to vacate her office and subjected her to unwarranted vilification within the parliament. The president angrily referred to her as a “mad woman” and her activities as “subversive.” Yet, amidst the adversity, Maathai’s protests and the government’s heavy-handed response bore a profound testament to the power of determination. The resolute opposition caught the attention of foreign investors, who, in the face of widespread condemnation, chose to withdraw support for the ill-fated project. The result? The preservation of a pristine and cherished public park.

The beauty of this story, borne from the courage of one woman, endures in the form of a public park that continues to enrich the lives of countless Kenyans.

What can we learn from Professor Wangari Maathai

The legacy of Wangari Maathai continues to inspire long after the end of her life. Her extraordinary life and work remind us that the right to a healthy environment is not just an environmental concern; it’s a fundamental human right intrinsically connected to our well-being and the prosperity of future generations. From her legacy we can learn that:

  • Embracing a holistic approach is essential, addressing not only environmental issues but also human rights, democracy, education, and poverty as interconnected elements.
  • Effective community-based environmental advocacy thrives on practical solutions at the grassroots level, highlighting the significance of local engagement.
  • The role of individual and community action is pivotal in preserving and safeguarding the environment.
  • There is need to raise awareness and advocate for environmental causes at the highest levels of influence and policymaking.
  • Environmentalism is not a singular Western concept but is something that comes in many forms.

For more on Maathai’s legacy, see the Wangari Maathai Foundation.

This Human Rights Profile was written by Angela Gathoni.

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