On September 25, we lost a global hero and visionary as Professor Wangari Maathai passed away following a struggle with cancer in Nairobi, Kenya. Dr. Maathai was a passionate advocate for environmental protection, sustainable development, peace, and democracy who was honored for her work in 2004 with the Nobel Peace Prize.
Dr. Maathai made the prescient connection that for Kenya’s poor, sustainable development could not occur without a commensurate commitment to environmental protection. She established the Green Belt Movement in 1977 to put this idea into practice, training women to raise tree seedlings and then purchasing the mature seedlings for reforestation projects throughout Kenya. In addition to 47 million trees planted since then, the Green Belt Movement has also exponentially increased environmental awareness in Kenya and around the world, conducting civic and environmental education programs, empowering women and communities, and faithfully promoting sustainable development despite grave obstacles.
In Kenya, Dr. Maathai fought the widespread perception that forests lack economic value by emphasizing the social worth and ecosystem services of intact forests. According to the USDA Forest Service, responsibly managed forests sustain biodiversity, serve as carbon storage, and provide watershed services such as preventing and reversing erosion. People struggling to feed their families, however, cannot honor these long-term benefits when surviving even the next few days may require cutting down their very last tree. The Green Belt Movement therefore reversed the connection between poverty and environmental degradation by encouraging environmental stewardship among impoverished communities.
In a statement from the United Nations Environment Programme, a long-time partner of Dr. Maathai, UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner remarked “UNEP has lost a real friend and an icon of the environmental movement. But her work and her vision will live on in the millions upon millions of people - young and old - who heard Wangari's voice, resonated with her aims and ideals and like her rolled up their sleeves to design and define a better future for all.”
In order to achieve that better future, let’s honor Wangari Maathai by taking responsibility for our environmental impacts today.
(photo from UNEP)
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