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Wangari Maathai: Planting Trees as an Act of Rebellion


The first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, she was responsible for the planting millions of trees.

The generation that destroys the environment is not the generation that pays the price.
That is the problem. 

―Wangari Maathai

When it comes to rebellion, it’s easy to think of dramatic, bombastic acts, heroes, and revolutions. Who would think that planting trees could be such a blunt act of resistance? Wangari Maathai was born in 1940, in Kenya, near a sacred fig tree. Perhaps this fact, which might very well pass unnoticed, marked her destiny. It would be through trees —masters that they are of authenticity and belonging— that she would fight her entire life. Her tireless efforts dedicated to the planet and its preservation, and also to women’s rights, in 2004 made her the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace.”

Maathai grew up in a rural Kenyan community, a country exploited by British colonialism, and where enormous wooded areas had been logged for the sowing of tea plantations. The little girl grew up in a society in which only men could study and pursue professional careers. Fortunately for all, she broke the norm and was sent to school by her mother.

Maathai loved nature and studied it all her life. She studied biology first, earning a doctorate in the United States, and finally, in veterinary anatomy which she taught for many years at the University of Nairobi. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to acquire a doctoral degree, and this inevitably made her a pioneer in the defense of women’s rights. In 1976, she began to develop her idea of community tree planting. Her country having ceased to be a colony, poverty made the sale of timber and the illegal felling of trees for the planting of tea, coffee, and tobacco, popular sources of income.

At its maximum expression and organization, this community planting led to the launch of the Green Belt Movement whose goal was poverty reduction and environmental conservation, and both through the planting of trees. The work involved raising public awareness, explaining the importance of caring for the environment and thinking about the future for generations to come. In a country where women lived under the yokes of men, Maathai encouraged local nurseries to hire by women from the many villages where she was working, thus giving them a new place within their communities.

The work done by Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement culminated in the planting of about 30 million trees and empowered thousands of African women, making them agents of change, too. Maathai was a pioneer in clearing a new path for all of humanity, one in which equality and sustainability converged, and one where trees finally held the place they deserve.

Image: Public domain 

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