Wangari Maathai: The Kenyan Environmentalist and Visionary (Black History Month Series)

The Kenyan Environmentalist and Visionary That Helped Revitalize Kenya

Michael Wang
February 28, 2023
An African woman wearing blue clothing carrying a plant in her hands.

As we reach the final weekend of Black History Month, we reflect upon the efforts of many Black environmental leaders who have pushed for a better life for future generations. Their dedication has paved the way for a better future, encouraging practices that have the potential to drive significant change within their communities and across the world.

A shared characteristic among Black environmentalists is their commitment to creating a positive and meaningful transformation within their communities. Many of them strive to bring people together and educate them about the pressing issues at hand and how they impact the future of humanity. These dedicated individuals, much like the remarkable Wangari Maathai, represent how important it is to maintain the landscape of our environment and everything around it. Wangari Maathai's legacy serves as a reminder of the importance of protecting the ecological landscape and all that’s within it.

That is why today we have chosen to honor leaders like Wangari Maathai, who have not only recognized the significance of the challenges we face but have also taken action to address them. In honoring these remarkable individuals, we also extend our gratitude to the broader network of Black environmentalists who continue to advocate, educate, and inspire.

Who Is Wangari Maathai?

Born from humble beginnings, Wangari Maathai was a woman of many firsts. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate, the first female department head at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, and the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

At an early age, Maathai learned to show respect for the trees around her. Her mother taught her that trees were "Gods'' and should be appreciated. In the 1880s, however, the British started their colonization and  deforestation for building and farming harmed the environment. Because of this, Maathai watched her homeland dry up along with the local river.

The actions of the British resulted in the onset of desertification within the village, fueling a sense of resentment among the local population and sparking complaints concerning the lack of firewood. This chain of events ultimately led to her determination to fix the damage inflicted by the British.

In response to the extreme circumstances, Maathai decided to start an organization dedicated to tree planting. This decision, aimed at counteracting the unfortunate consequences brought on by the British, marked a turning point in history. As a result, the Green Belt Movement was formed, beginning a transformative effort to reclaim and restore what had been disrupted.

What Is the Green Belt Movement? How Did It Help the Land and Her Community?

A group of five women tending to and growing seedlings and planting trees.

The movement founded by Maathai encouraged many women to work together to grow seedlings and plant trees to bind the soil, store rainwater, and provide food and firewood for others. The people instituted the Green Belt Movement following the deforestation impact in Kenya.

It met the needs of women living in rural areas in Kenya; they reported that their streams were drying up, their food supply was shortening, and they felt less secure. They also had to walk further distances to get firewood for fuel and fencing.

The Green Belt Movement served to advocate for more accountability from country leaders and show them that their actions are causing harmful effects on the environment. Maathai pushed for more emphasis on supporting climate change and instilling the notions of "reduce, reuse, recycle" in the people in Kenya and the world. Through the efforts of the Green Belt Movement, they have partnered with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in its Billion Tree Campaign.

Since the creation of the Green Belt Movement, the successes in forest conservation, education, and women's economic empowerment have helped it gain worldwide acclaim and have spearheaded the awareness of environmentalism.

What Did She Do to Help Push the Boundaries of Environmentalism?

Her impact has inspired many and raised awareness of the importance of environmentalism and sustainability.

Maathai grew up in a community where the environment directly influenced their livelihood and well-being. This made her a great leader and skilled at bringing awareness of environmentalism to the forefront of many countries and their leaders.

The Green Belt Movement continues to progress on reclaiming and restoring forest land and advocating for environmental conservation in Kenya. It acts as a great reminder of the work that Maathai has put into creating a positive change not only for herself but for others as well. It stands as a testament that one simple idea can make a difference.

Wangari Maathai's legacy will live on and will continue to inspire more young leaders within the environmental and sustainability community.

‍Learn More

If you want to learn more about inspiring environmentalists or climate education, you can visit our Climate Education blog posts page. Our climate education posts feature stories on many black environmentalists including George Washington Carver and Hattie Carthan. Plus we have posts that highlight important information on climate change, offsets, and carbon markets. 

Michael Wang
February 28, 2023

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