Friday, 28 March 2008

Wangari Maathai of the Green Belt Movement

photo by Martin Rowe, from Wikipedia
Born in 1940 in Central Province on the slopes of Mt Kenya, she was the first women veterinarian in her country, professor and dean at the University of Nairobi, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. This was followed by many other world honours. In 1977 Maathai had founded the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots NGO which enlisted thousands of women and girls who planted over 30 million trees in Kenya to halt erosion and desertification, inspiring others in drought-stricken central Africa and around the world. They call her "Tree Woman". In 2007 she led the UN Billion Tree Campaign.

At first she met opposition. It was hard, she says, to convince rural women they could "improve their environment without much technology or financial resources". Tree-planting, she told them, could stop erosion and produce sustainable fuel supplies. The Green Belt Movement also campaigned on education, nutrition and other issues. From 1981-87 she chaired Maendeleo Ya Wanawake (the National Council of Women ).

She is a staunch feminist, political activist and peacemaker. In the 1980s her husband Mwangi Mathai, an opposition politician with whom she had 3 children, divorced her, saying she was "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control". The judge agreed, jailing her for contempt when she protested, and decreeing that she must drop her husband's surname. In defiance, Maathai chose to add the extra "a". For daring to demand multi-party elections, end deforestation, political corruption and the tribal politics of President Daniel Arap Moi, she was imprisoned several times and beaten by police. At the risk of her life (for political assassinations were becoming common) she stopped Moi cronies' construction of a 60-story skyscraper in Nairobi's main park. Rapidly gaining a worldwide reputation, she tried to run as a presidential candidate in 1997 but was sabotaged by her own party. She fared better when Mwai Kibaki came to power in 2002, elected MP as part of his Rainbow Coalition and appointed Assistant Minister of Environment. Again frustrated by political corruption, she sat as an opposition Green Party MP from 2005 to 2007. Defeated, last year she put the weight of her reputation behind the Forests Now Declaration calling for the extension of Kyoto credit mechanisms to protect forests (REDD), and the first Global Young Greens conference for delegates of environmental, civil rights, peace, and social justice youth movements and Green Parties from all over the world.

The 2004 Nobel Award committee praised her for "fighting for women's rights, sustainable development, democracy and peace". She continues to do so. Following Jan 2008 political massacres by Odinga and Kibaki partisans, her Green Belt Movement set up a peace tent to encourage reconciliation.

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