When Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai died last year, she still had work to do. After all, the task of saving the environment and fostering world peace is a huge one, not easily completed. But Maathai did take enormous strides toward making our world a better place. On the day that would have been her 72nd birthday, we present four of the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s great accomplishments.
Wangari Maathai, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, speaks during the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, Friday, March 10, 2006, at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Organizers say the purpose of the forum is to give recognition to Norway's international peace efforts and to offer opportunities for Nobel Peace Prize laureates, diplomats, scholars, and the general public to share in dialogue on the dynamics of peacemaking and the underlying causes of conflict and war. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Green Belt Network. In 1977, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, dedicated to combating deforestation in Africa. As a result of her efforts, more than 40 million trees have been planted in over 2000 public green belts spanning multiple countries. The work continues, and each tree planted is a step toward a greener, healthier earth.
Skills for African women. Through the Green Belt Movement, more than 30,000 African women have learned skills like forestry, bee-keeping and food processing. Not only do these activities help the environment; they help the women, too. These marketable skills bring much-needed money and food to desperately poor households.
Release of political prisoners. In February 1992, Maathai and others began a hunger strike to urge the Kenyan government to release political prisoners. When police descended on the strikers on day four, Maathai was injured and hospitalized, but she was undeterred. She continued protesting for the better part of a year, until early 1993 when the government agreed to release the prisoners.
Democracy for Kenya. As Kenya struggled in the post-colonial years, Maathai sought to bring true democracy to her country. Maathai worked to unite the people to defeat the controlling party in democratic elections. In 2002, she finally succeeded, with her National Rainbow Coalition defeating the ruling party, and Maathai herself winning a seat in parliament. Kenya continues to grow and work toward a government of the people, but great strides have been made – thanks in large part to Maathai's efforts.
As Kenya – and the rest of the world – hears the call of freedom and environmental security, things are changing for the better all over. One of the loudest voices making that call was Wangari Maathai's.
Written by Linnea Crowther