Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement while serving as a professor of veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi. GBM began as a project of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK), of which she was a member. Rural women had been coming to the NCWK complaining of deteriorating environmental conditions in their regions. The streams were drying up, the harvests were poor, and women had to walk further and further afield in search of firewood.
Prof. Maathai saw the solution clearly. Through the Green Belt Movement, she mobilized thousands of women and men to plant, ultimately, tens of millions of trees throughout Kenya. Prof. Maathai’s approach was practical, holistic, and deeply ecological: the tree roots would bind the soil to halt erosion; they would retain groundwater following rains and replenish streams; and, if nurtured and harvested sustainably, the trees would provide food, fodder, and fuel to maintain the livelihoods of communities.
Within a few years, Prof. Maathai realized that the illegal and corrupt privatization of public land necessitated a more systemic and comprehensive approach to conservation. Environmental degradation and impoverishment, she observed, didn’t happen in a vacuum—it was a consequence of political irresponsibility; a break of connections to one’s culture; psychological disempowerment; and a loss of values. To that end, GBM organized seminars to help ordinary Kenyans reframe their passivity and sense of disenfranchisement. GBM and Prof. Maathai campaigned against political and economic mismanagement, especially of public land and forests, and advocated for greater democratic space, accountability and integrity from political leaders at all levels.
These activities brought Prof. Maathai into direct conflict with the Kenyan government of the time, and as a result she was harassed, threatened, beaten up, and jailed. Nonetheless, Prof. Maathai and GBM persevered, and eventually both earned national and global recognition for their transformative work— culminating in the Nobel Peace Prize award in 2004.
From 2004 to her untimely death in 2011, Prof Maathai travelled the world, urging action on climate change, environmental justice, the protection of forests, good governance, participatory democracy, and women’s rights within Kenya, across Africa, and around the world. She worked tirelessly, alongside GBM members, with governments and non-governmental agencies, industry leaders, and philanthropists. Her message of inclusiveness, activism, self-empowerment, and collective action resonated universally: with rural women, heads of state, people of every faith and no faith, in her community and across continents. Wangari Maathai remains a potent example of how one person can be a force for change.
Before her passing, Prof. Maathai established the Wangari Maathai Institute of Peace and Environmental Studies (WMI) at the University of Nairobi. WMI brings together GBM field workers with academics working on conservation, agriculture, and biological diversity (among other disciplines) so they can learn from one another, and form best practices and innovative techniques to foster sustainable development through understanding the linkages between sustainable management of the environment, democracy and peace.
The legacy of Wangari Maathai, however, remained incomplete—beyond the valuable and necessary practical applications of her environmental grassroots activism and educational legacy in WMI. She touched so many people’s lives— in Kenya, across Africa, and around the world—because she embodied values and characteristics that they wanted in themselves: to aspire to an idea bigger than themselves, and to make a difference no matter what their station or how scarce their resources. This is the raison d’être for the Wangari Muta Maathai House.
The vision of the Wangari Maathai Foundation is a world in which individuals acknowledge their capacity to be a force for positive transformation like Wangari Maathai was. The Foundation will seek to amplify Prof. Maathai’s message by supporting ideas and initiatives that demonstrate that each of us, no matter how small, can make a difference.