The World Loses Environmentalist and Sustainable Development Champion Wangari Maathi

Both environmentalists and sustainable development advocates lost a champion when Wangari Maathi died on September 25, 2011. Maathi became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. On Earth Day in 1977, Maathi founded the Green Belt Movement, a non-profit organization based in Kenya, as a tree-planting organization designed to address the problems of deforestation and soil erosion.

As an ardent environmentalist who believed in empowering women, Maathi used GBM to encourage Kenyan women to stand up for their communities through planting trees. To date, GBM has over 600 community networks in Kenya caring for 6,000 tree nurseries, and over 30 million trees have been planted on both public and private land. However, GBM goes beyond just tree planting, and educates people about issues such as the environment. In addition, GBM has a number of sustainable development campaigns.

In a letter posted on GBM’s website, Maathi called planting trees the “planting of ideas.” The letter goes on to state:

“By starting with the simple step of digging a hole and planting a tree, we plant hope for ourselves and for future generations. Through the process of mobilizing people to action, GBM addresses a wide range of issues that directly affect the lives of individuals, particularly women, and their families, including education, access to water, equity, and reproductive health. People then begin to stand up for their rights and those of their communities. It is their empowerment that truly leads them to decide to prioritize the environment, good governance, and cultures of peace.”

Tributes to Maathi show her vast impact

Maathi’s life and reactions to her death shows the impact that one person can make by championing important issues, and helping others implement solutions to those issues. The tributes pouring in from people such as President Obama and UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon prove just how many people Maathi impacted.

President Obama said he learned of Maathi’s death “with great sadness.” In a statement, Obama extended condolences to Maathi’s family. “The world mourns with you and celebrates the extraordinary life of this remarkable woman who devoted her life to peacefully protecting what she called ‘our common home and future,'” he said.

Ban Ki-moon called Maathi a “globally recognized champion for human rights and women’s empowerment” and a “pioneer in articulating the links between human rights, poverty, environmental protection and security.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Maathi a “a tireless advocate for the environment, for women and for all those in the developing world who are unable to realize their potential.”
“She understood and acted on the inextricable links between poverty, rights and environmental sustainability,” South African Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu said of Maathi.
Maathi used her “power and life force” to “mobilize communities and to argue for conservation and sustainable development over destruction,” UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said.

Steiner added that on “several occasions” Maathi risked her life “to campaign and coordinate women and young people through her work in the Green Belt Movement.”

Photo credit: Green Belt Movement

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by

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