The Who2 Blog

Wangari Maathai, Nobel-Winning Planter of Trees, Dead at Age 71

Three billion trees, millions of fiery words, and one Nobel Peace Prize later, Wangari Maathai has died in Kenya. 

“It is with great sadness that the family of Professor Wangari Maathai announces her passing away on 25th September, 2011, at the Nairobi Hospital, after a prolonged and bravely borne struggle with cancer,” said a statement from the Green Belt Movement. “Her loved ones were with her at the time.” Born in 1940, she was 71 at her death.

Wangari Maathai was teaching veterinary medicine at the University of Nairobi in the 1970s — as the first-ever female professor at that school — when she saw that environmental destruction was also destroying the lives of poor African women. She began to promote the planting of trees, an idea that grew into her Green Belt Movement.

Over the next 30 years she battled long and hard with the Kenyan government and other African leaders. As noted by the Nairobi Star, she was “brutally beaten by police during President [Daniel Arap] Moi’s era. She was in 1992 hospitalised after she was beaten unconscious by police during a hunger strike. Seven years later, her head was gashed and many of her supporters injured when Green Belt Movement attempted to replace trees cut by real estate developers at Karura Forest.”

Maathai was just as hard on advanced Western countries and their impact on poorer societies: “The top of the pyramid is blinded by insatiable appetites backed by scientific knowledge, industrial advancement, the need to acquire, accumulate and over-consume. The rights of those at the bottom are violated every day by those at the top.”

The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize gave her a new global platform, and she traveled and spoke widely. Time magazine named her one of the world’s 100 most influential people, and she was recognized with awards ranging from the French Legion of Honor to the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund Award.  (Ironic, considering the land cleared for DisneyWorld in Orlando. But still.) Two years ago, Kyoto named her one of the founding members of the Earth Hall of Fame.

A Reuters obituary calls Maathai the “savior of trees,” and that sounds right. The Guardian calls her “a towering figure in Kenya” and has a sturdy collection of articles and remembrances.

See our full Wangari Maathai biography >>

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