In the 1970's, after becoming the first woman in east and central Africa to earn a Ph.D., Professor Maathai became active in humanitarian and environmental organizations in her home of Kenya, including the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). Through her work within that organization, she spoke to rural communities about the deteriorating environmental and social conditions affecting poor, rural Kenyans—especially women. The women told her that they lacked firewood for cooking and heating, that clean water was scarce, and nutritious food was limited.
Professor Maathai suggested to them that planting trees might be an answer. The trees would provide wood for cooking, fodder for livestock, and material for fencing; they would protect watersheds and stabilize the soil, improving agriculture. This was the beginning of the Green Belt Movement (GBM), which was formally established in 1977. GBM has since mobilized hundreds of thousands of women and men to plant more than 47 million trees, restoring degraded environments and improving the quality of life for people in poverty.
As GBM began to expand, Professor Maathai began to realize that deeper issues of disempowerment, bad governance, and a loss of the values that had enabled communities to sustain their land and livelihoods lay beneath the surface issues of environmental destruction and poverty. Planting trees ultimately became a starting point for a larger social, economic, and environmental agenda. Over the next twenty years The Green Belt Movement joined with other pro-democracy advocates to press for an end to the abuses of the dictatorial regime of then Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi. As a consequence of these and other advocacy efforts, Professor Maathai and GBM staff and colleagues were repeatedly beaten, jailed, harassed, and publicly vilified by the Moi regime. Professor Maathai’s fearlessness and persistence resulted in her becoming one of the best-known and most respected women in Kenya. Internationally, she also gained recognition for her courageous stand for the rights of people and the environment.
Because of her following within Kenya and her commitment to democracy, Professor Maathai was elected into parliament in December 2002, in the first free-and-fair elections in her country for a generation. Later, in 2004, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her work for sustainable development, democracy, and peace.
For a full bio of Professor Maathai's achievements, click here. For an interview with Professor Maathai, click here.