Remembering a Remarkable Life and Leader

Written by Plant With Purpose on September 28, 2011 in General

In Memoriam, Professor Wangari Maathai

By Lars Stairs-Almquist, Grant Writing Intern

As I awoke on Monday and proceeded to reinact my morning ritual of coffee-sipping and scattershot perusing of various news feeds from around the world, headline after headline engaged me with a variation of “Wangari Maathai, Nobel Laureate, Has Died.”  Tears soon welled up in my eyes for a woman I had never met, yet who has had a tremendous impact upon my life.

Five years ago, I was handed a copy of Professor Maathai’s memoir, Unbowed.  I could not have known at the time how influential her words would ultimately be in my life.  I cracked the book open, and before I even reached the Table of Contents, I was met with a very simple rendering of an Old Testament Scripture:

The trees of the field will yield their fruit and the ground will yield its crops; the people will be secure in the land.  They will know that I am the LORD, when I break the bars of their yoke and rescue them from the hands of those who enslaved them.

– Ezekiel 34: 27[NIV] 

Ms. Maathai’s reference was the first I can remember encountering that connected care for the environment with the overarching biblical theme of liberation from slavery and injustice.  As I continued reading, I was consumed with the intersecting and interdependent themes of environmental reforestation, the grassroots empowerment of women and poor farmers, and the role of protecting scarce natural resources as an avenue for preventing violent conflict.  I would soon learn that Professor Maathai’s efforts further connected care for the environment with the presence of good governance and the creation of a democratic space where the participation of all individuals is welcomed.

Maathai recognized from a young age that economic and environmental policies and practices inherited from the British colonial system emphasized the clear-cutting of Kenyan forests for the purpose of planting cash crops in rural areas.  Such practices contributed to the altering of native landscapes and a subsequent increase in the rate of soil erosion, processes that further silted existing watersheds and contaminated drinking water used by both livestock and human beings.  People and animals in these areas were more susceptible to water-born diseases, and found themselves less productive than when indigenous agricultural techniques and models were implemented prior to the adoption of western agricultural practices.  

Maathai’s organization, The Green Belt Movement, further recognized that cash crops intended for export were increasingly occupying land previously dedicated to produce food for Kenyan communities.  In response, Maathai gathered tens of thousands of rural Kenyan women to engage in forestry techniques that encourage communal participation in contributing to the public good, civic engagement in pursuit of democracy, and the economic and social empowerment of individuals and their families.  In addition to deepening the roots of democracy and civic participation in Kenya, their efforts have resulted in the planting of nearly 50 million trees over the past four decades.

Reflecting on their efforts, Professor Maathai has remarked, “The Green Belt Movement had provided a laboratory of sorts to experiement with a holistic approach to development that dealt with problems on the ground but also examined and addressed their individual and systemic causes”.  Such a laboratory has intentionally included undereducated rural Kenyans, as Professor Maathai insists, “you don’t need a diploma to plant a tree”.  She was a global forerunner in implementing reforestation efforts that incorporate the dispossessed poor into the process of sustaining their environment.   Maathai’s belief that such processes have the capacity to draw individuals who could be forced into competition over scarce land resources into interdependent relationships with their neighbors in ways that enhance their mutual benefit and reduce future risks of scarcity-induced conflict has transformed the way in which international practitioners of peacebuilding and development work approach the relationship between environmental degradation and violent conflict. 

In honor of her decades of service to the poor and marginalized in Kenya, as well as for her commitment to environmental stewardship as a vehicle for peacebuilding and the promotion of good governance, Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.  She remains the only African woman to have won the award. 

Asante sana, Professor Maathai.

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