Kenya’s most recognizable woman, Maathai won the Nobel in 2004 for combining environmentalism and social activism. She was the founder of the Green Belt Movement, where over 30 years she mobilized poor women to plant 30 million trees.
In recognizing Maathai, the Nobel committee said that she had stood up to a former oppressive regime – a reference to former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi – and that her “unique forms of action have contributed to drawing attention to political oppression.”
Maathai said during her 2004 acceptance speech that the inspiration for her life’s work came from her childhood experiences in rural Kenya, where she witnessed forests being cleared and replaced by commercial plantations, which destroyed biodiversity and the capacity of forests to conserve water.
Although the Green Belt Movement’s tree-planting campaign did not initially address the issues of peace and democracy, Maathai said it became clear over time that responsible governance of the environment was not possible without democracy.
“Therefore, the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya. Citizens were mobilized to challenge widespread abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement,” Maathai said.
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said Maathai’s death “strikes at the core of our nation’s heart.”
“I join Kenyans and friends of Kenya in mourning the passing of this hero of our national struggles,” Odinga said. “Hers has been heroism easily recognized locally and abroad. … Prof Maathai has passed on just when the causes she long fought for were just beginning to get the attention they deserved as threats to the survival of the human race and that of our planet.”
The United Nations Environment Program called Maathai one of Africa’s foremost environmental campaigners. The U.N. agency recalled that Maathai was the inspiration behind UNEP’s Billion Tree Campaign, which was launched in 2006. To date, more than 11 billion trees have been planted as part of the campaign.
“Wangari Maathai was a force of nature. While others deployed their power and life force to damage, degrade and extract short term profit from the environment, she used hers to stand in their way, mobilize communities and to argue for conservation and sustainable development over destruction,” said Achim Steiner, the executive director of UNEP.