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Maathai, Wangari

By Kelly Groom

Graduate Student
Ferris State University

Biographical Highlights

Wangari Muta Maathai has become an international figure because of her persistence in the struggle for democracy, human rights and environmental conservation. She has been able to make many great advancements in both her personal life and the communities that she works to represent. Maathai is best known for her efforts to develop the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots organization that focuses on planting trees to replenish the environment and improve the quality of life. Because of her efforts, Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

Historic Roots

Wangari Muta Maathai was born in 1940 to a farming family in the highlands of Mount Kenya in Nyeri, Kenya. At a young age, Maathai became interested in Environmental Sciences. In 1964, she obtained a Biological Sciences degree from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas. She went on to earn a Master of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1966. After receiving her Master of Science degree, she became the first woman from her region to obtain a Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi in 1971. While teaching veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi, Maathai became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy (1976) and an associate professor (1977). Again, Maathai was the first woman from her region to attain positions of such stature. (Les Prix Nobel, 2005)

In 1976, Wangari Maathai became active in the National Council of Women of Kenya. While she was serving as the chairwoman in the National Council of Women, she began to structure a grassroots organization that encouraged women’s groups to plant trees in order to conserve the environment. It was this small grassroots effort that has assisted women in planting more than 20 million trees on farms, schools, and churches. This effort eventually became known as the philanthropic organization called the Green Belt Movement. (Les Prix Nobel, 2005)

Wangari Maathai is internationally admired for her persistence in the areas of environmental conservation, human rights, and democracy. She has taken the opportunity to address the United Nations on several occasions and has spoken at special sessions of the General Assembly on behalf of women. Maathai has been given numerous awards because of her philanthropic work with the Green Belt Movement and other organizations. The most notable award given to Wangari Maathai was the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. (Les Prix Nobel, 2005)

In December 2002, Professor Maathai received another honor when she was elected to the Kenyan Parliament with 98% of the vote. After winning the election she was appointed, by President Mwai Kibaki, as Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife in Kenya’s ninth parliament. (Les Prix Nobel, 2005)

Importance

Wangari Maathai has become very important to the people of Kenya, Africa and the international community. Maathai feels very strongly about several issues that affect others’ lives on a daily basis. One of the issues that she is most active in is the issue of environmental conservation. Because of her active role in the environment and the Green Belt Movement, more than 20 million trees have been planted, numerous other countries have begun tree planting programs, and women all over the world have been helped by the example that she sets. (Les Prix Nobel, 2005) As noted by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, she stood up courageously against an oppressive regime. She has served as an “inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights and has especially encouraged women to better their situation.” (Nobel Peace Prize)

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Most of Wangari Maathai’s accomplishments are because of her involvement in the philanthropic sector. Maathai’s involvement in the philanthropic sector reaches far beyond the establishment of the Green Belt Movement. She is also active in many other beneficial organizations, such as: the Jubilee 2000 Coalition, campaigns against land grabbing and rapacious allocation of forests, the Commission for Global Governance, the Commission on the Future, The Jane Goodall Institute, Women and Environment Development Organization (WEDO), World Learning for International Development, Green Cross International, Environment Liaison Center International, and the National Council of Women of Kenya. (joinafrica.com)

Key Related Ideas

Wangari Maathai serves on the boards of several organizations. One of these organizations is the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament. While serving on this board, Maathai agrees to advise the Secretary-General on various aspects of Conventional arms, focusing on the Register of Conventional Arms, small arms, good governance and peace-building in West Africa and anti-personnel land mines. (United Nations)

Wangari Maathai is known internationally as an environmental conservationist. This term refers to a person who is a supporter of or advocate for the preservation of the environment, especially the natural world. (Encarta Dictionary Tools)

Wangari Maathai was cited by the Nobel Prize Committee for her contribution to sustainable development. This term applies to developing land, cities, communities, and businesses so that they can contribute effectively to the present without compromising their ability to function in the future. (Wikipedia)

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Mwai Kibaki (1931—): President Mwai Kibaki was elected president of Kenya in 2002, during the same election that Wangari Maathai won a seat in Parliament. President Kibaki appointed Maathai as Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife in Kenya’s ninth parliament.

  • Denis Sassou-Ngeuso (1943—): Denis Sassou-Ngeuso is the president of the Economic Community of Central African States. During the Second Heads of State Summit for Conservation and Sustainable Management of Africa’s Forest Ecosystems, Sassou-Ngeuso extended a public invitation to Wangari Maathai to become the roving Ambassador for the Congo Basin. By accepting this role, Wangari Maathaiwill advocate for the sustainable management of the Congo Basin.

  • Klaus Topfer (1938—): Topfer is the head of the United Nations Environment Program. He has been important in the formation of Wangari Maathai’s “mottainai” program. Topfer suggested that the fourth R for repair be added to the three existing R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle).

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The Economic, Social, and Cultural Council of the African Union (ECOSOCC): Professor Maathai was sworn in as ECOSOCC’s first president in 2005. The organization was developed as an advisory organization to the African Union. The ECOSOCC’s main objective is to promote dialogue between all segments of the African people concerning Africa’s future. The group hopes to forge partnerships between government and many of the under represented groups such as women, youth, children, the Diaspora, organized labor, private sector, and professional groups (The Green Belt Movement).

  • The Green Belt Movement
    The Green Belt Movement was founded in 1977 by Wangari Maathai.  The GBM is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that focuses on environmental conservation, community development and capacity building.  While the Green Belt Movement has always focused their efforts on planting trees, they have begun to expand their programs to include: indigenous tree planting, civic education, advocacy, food security, greenbelt eco-safaris, and “women and change.”  The Green Belt Movement has also begun the process of developing an international group (The Green Belt Movement)

  • Millennium Development Goals
    Wangari Maathai is a strong supporter of the eight Millennium Development Goals.  She believes that environmental conservation must become prevalent in order for the MDG goals to be achieved.  The eight goals are:
    To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
    To achieve universal primary education
    To promote gender equality and empower women
    To reduce child mortality
    To improve maternal health
    To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
    To ensure environmental sustainability
    To develop a global partnership for development
    (The Green Belt Movement)

  • Mottainai:  The Four R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, …and Repair)
    Maathai began to practice “mottainai” after learning the meaning of the word during a visit to Japan.  Mottainai means “what a waste!” in Japanese.  Wangari Maathai, who had been campaigning to reduce, reuse, and recycle for many years, decided to add the fourth R of repair because of a suggestion made by the head of the UN Environment Program.  Maathai hopes to make mottainai a global campaign in the near future (The Green Belt Movement).

  • Protecting the Congo Basin Rainforest Ecosystem
    In 2005 Wangari Maathai accepted an invitation from H.E. President Denis Sassou Ngeuso to become an ambassador for the Congo Basin.  While acting as an ambassador, she will advocate for the sustainable resources in the Congo Basin.  The Congo Basin is one of two remaining forest “lungs” in the world.  However, the Basin’s ecosystem is being threatened by illegal logging, poaching, and the bush meat trade (The Green Belt Movement).

Related Web Sites

  • The Green Belt Movement web site, at www.greenbeltmovement.org, (accessed 8/3/06) contains biographical information about Wangari Maathai along with information about the Green Belt Movement organization that she founded.  The web site also provides you with Maathai’s belief statements on topics that she is concerned about, such as, Africa, AIDS, animals and wildlife, culture, democracy and civil society, development, environmentalism, Kenya, religion, and women’s rights.  (The Green Belt Movement)

  • The Nobel Peace Prize web site, at www.nobelprize.org provides biographical information about Wangari Maathai.  The web site also provides access to acceptance speeches, interviews, press releases, and photos from the time surrounding the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize.  There are also two links on the web site that take you to the Green Belt Movement web site and the BBC News web site, which contains information about both Maathai and the Nobel Peace Prize.  (Nobel Peace Prize)

  • The Women’s Environment & Development Organization (WEDO), at www.wedo.org contains information about the WEDO organization.  Maathai, who serves on the board for WEDO, has been active in women’s rights for many years.  The
    WEDO organization is an international organization that advocates for equality for women.  The organization offers many programs to help empower women as decision makers in areas such as economics, social and gender justice, and human rights.  (Women’s Environment & Development Organization)

Bibliography and Internet Sources

BBC News.  Profile:  Wangari Maathai  . Accessed 3 August 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/3726084.stm

Encarta Dictionary Tools.  DVD-ROM.  Microsoft Student, 2006.

The Green Belt Movement.  The Green Belt Movement. . Accessed 3 August  2006. http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/
 
Joinafrica.com.  Wangari Maathai – Biography Nobel Peace Prize 2004.   Accessed 3 August 2006. http://www.joinafrica.com.

Les Prix Nobel.  The Nobel Prizes 2004, Editor Tore Frangsmyr, [Nobel  Fouhndation], Stockholm, 2005.

Nobel Peace Prize.  Nobel Peace Prize . Accessed 3 August 2006.
http://www.nobelprize.org.

United Nations.  The Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament  Matters. . Accessed 3 August 2006. http://www.un.org/Depts/ddar/advbrd/Advbrd.htm

Women’s Environment & Development Organization.  Women’s Environment & Development Organization.  Accessed 3 August  2006. http://www.wedo.org/