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Wangari Maathai Biography, Publications, Green Belt Movement

Wangari Maathai – Biography

Wangari  Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya in 1940. She was a Kenyan environmental and political activist. . In 1960, she won a Kennedy scholarship to study in America and earned a master’s degree in biology from the University of Pittsburgh and became the first woman in East Africa to earn a Ph.D. She founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women’s rights. She is an award winner of the Right Livelihood Award, and in 2004, she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”


Wangari Maathai – Education Background

1971 : Graduate student of the University of Nairobi ;Ph.D., Anatomy

Up to 1966 :Graduate student of University of Pittsburgh ;M.S., Biological Sciences

Started September 1960 – 1964 :  Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College) in Atchison, Kansas, where she majored in biology, with minors in chemistry and German

Started 1956 : Loreto High School in Limuru

St. Cecilia Intermediate Primary School

Ihithe Primary School

Wangari Maathai – Political Career

2007 :  co-chair of the Congo Basin Fund, an initiative by the British and the Norwegian governments to help protect the Congo forests.

2005 : Goodwill Ambassador to the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem

2003–2007 : Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources

2002–2007 : Member of Parliament for Tetu Constituency

Wangari Maathai as a fighter for Democracy

During the first multi-party election of Kenya, in 1992, Wangari Maathai strove to unite the opposition and fair elections in Kenya. The Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) had fractured into FORD-Kenya (led by Oginga Odinga) and FORD-Asili (led by Kenneth Matiba); former vice president Mwai Kibaki had left the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party, and formed the Democratic Party. Maathai and many others believed such a fractured opposition would lead to KANU’s retaining control of the country, so they formed the Middle Ground Group in an effort to unite the opposition. Wangari Maathai was chosen to serve as its chairperson. Also during the election, Maathai and like-minded opposition members formed the Movement for Free and Fair Elections. Despite their efforts, the opposition did not unite, and the ruling KANU party used intimidation and state-held media to win the election, retaining control of parliament.
The following year, ethnic clashes occurred throughout Kenya. Wangari Maathai believed they were incited by the government, who had warned of stark consequences to multi-party democracy. Maathai travelled with friends and the press to areas of violence in order to encourage them to cease fighting. With the Green Belt Movement she planted “trees of peace”, but before long her actions were opposed by the government. The conflict areas were labeled as “no go zones”, and in February 1993 the president claimed that Wangari Maathai had masterminded a distribution of leaflets inciting Kikuyus to attack Kalenjins. After her friend and supporter Dr. Makanga was kidnapped, Wangari Maathai chose to go into hiding. While in hiding, Wangari Maathai was invited to a meeting in Tokyo of the Green Cross International, an environmental organization recently founded by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. When Wangari Maathai responded that she could not attend as she did not believe the government would allow her to leave the country and she was in hiding, Gorbachev pressured the government of Kenya to allow her to travel freely. President arap Moi denied limiting her travel, and she was allowed to leave the country, although too late for the meeting in Tokyo. Wangari Maathai was again recognized internationally, and she flew to Scotland to receive the Edinburgh Medal in April 1993. In May she went to Chicago to receive the Jane Addams International Women’s Leadership Award, and in June she attended the UN’s World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna.

During the elections of 1997,Wangari Maathai again wished to unite the opposition in order to defeat the ruling party. In November, less than two months before the election, she decided to run for parliament and for president as a candidate of the Liberal Party. Her intentions were widely questioned in the press; many believed she should simply stick to running the Green Belt Movement and stay out of politics. On the day of the election, a rumour that Wangari Maathai had withdrawn from the election and endorsed another candidate was printed in the media. Wangari Maathai garnered few votes and lost the election.

In the summer of 1998, Wangari Maathai learned of a government plan to privatize large areas of public land in the Karura Forest, just outside Nairobi, and give it to political supporters. Wangari Maathai protested this through letters to the government and the press. She went with the Green Belt Movement to Karura Forest, planting trees and protesting the destruction of the forest. On 8 January 1999, a group of protesters including Wangari Maathai, six opposition MPs, journalists, international observers, and Green Belt members and supporters returned to the forest to plant a tree in protest. The entry to the forest was guarded by a large group of men. When she tried to plant a tree in an area that had been designated to be cleared for a golf course, the group was attacked. Many of the protesters were injured, including Wangari Maathai, four MPs, some of the journalists, and German environmentalists. When she reported the attack to the police, they refused to return with her to the forest to arrest her attackers. However, the attack had been filmed by Maathai’s supporters, and the event provoked international outrage. Student protests broke out throughout Nairobi, and some of these groups were violently broken up by the police. Protests continued until 16 August 1999, when the president announced that he was banning all allocation of public land.

In 2001, the government again planned to take public forest land and give it to its supporters. While protesting this and collecting petition signatures on 7 March 2001, in Wang’uru village near Mount Kenya, Maathai was again arrested. The following day, following international and popular protest at her arrest, she was released without being charged. On 7 July 2001, shortly after planting trees at Freedom Corner in Uhuru Park in Nairobi to commemorate Saba Saba Day, Maathai was again arrested. Later that evening, she was again released without being charged


Wangari Maathai – Honorary Degrees

2010 : Honorary Doctorate Degree, Kwansei Gakuin University, Japan (2010)
2009 : Doctor of Humane Letters, Meredith College, USA
2007 : Doctor of Science, Egerton University, Kenya
2006 : Doctor of Public Service Honoris Causa, University of Pittsburgh, USA
2006 : Doctor of Humane Letters, Connecticut College, USA
2006 : Doctor of Science, Morehouse College, USA
2005 : Doctor of Science, Ochanomizu University, Japan
2005 : Doctor of Science, Willamette University, USA
2005 : Doctor of Science, University of Nairobi, Kenya
2004 : Doctor of Science, Soka University, Japan
2004 : Doctor of Science, Aoyama Gakuin University, Japan
2004 : Doctor of Law, Yale University, USA
1997 : Doctor of Agriculture, University of Norway
1994 : Doctor of Science, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, USA
1990 : Doctor of Law, Williams College, USA

Wangari Maathai – Awards

2010 : Earth Hall of Fame, Kyoto (Japan)
2009 : Humanity 4 Water Award for Outstanding Commitment 2 Action
2009 : The Order of the Rising Sun, Japan
2009 : Judge, 2009 Geotourism Challenge, National Geographic, USA
2009 : NAACP Chairman’s Award, USA
2008 : Dignitas Humana Award, St John’s School of Theology, USA
2008 : Cinema Verite, Honorary President, France
2008 : Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Honorary Fellowship, UK
2007 : The Nelson Mandela Award for Health & Human Rights, South Africa
2007 : The Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, India
2007 : Cross of the Order of St Benedict, Benedictine College, Kansas, USA
2007 : World Citizenship Award, World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts
2006 : The Indira Gandhi International Award for Peace, Disarmament & Development, India
2006 : Premio Defensa Medio Ambiente, Club Internacional De Prensa, Spain
2006 : 6th in 100 Greatest Eco-Heroes of All Time, The Environment Agency, UK
2006 : Medal for Distinguished Achievement, University of Pennsylvania, USA
2006 : Woman of Achievement Award from the American Biographical Institute Inc., USA
2006 : The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, Milele (Lifetime) Achievement Award
2006 : Legion D’Honneur, Government of France
2006 : The IAIA Global Environment Award, International Association for Impact Assessment, Norway
2006 : Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund Award, USA
2006 : World Citizenship Award
2005 : New York Women’s Century Award, New York Women’s Foundation, USA
2005 : One of the 100 Most Influential People in the World: Time magazine, USA
2005 : One of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World: Forbes magazine, USA
2004 : Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Norway
2004 : Sophie Prize, the Sophie Foundation, Norway
2004 : Elder of the Golden Heart, Republic of Kenya
2004 : Petra Kelly Environment Prize, Heinrich Boell Foundation, Germany
2004 : J. Sterling Morton Award, Arbor Day Foundation, USA
2004 : Conservation Scientist Award, Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, Columbia University, USA
2003 : Elder of the Burning Spear, Republic of Kenya
2003 : WANGO Environment Award, World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations, USA
2002 : Outstanding Vision and Commitment Award, Bridges to Community, USA
2001 : Excellence Award, Kenyan Community Abroad, USA
2001 : The Juliet Hollister Award, Temple of Understanding, USA
1997 : One of 100 in the World Who’ve Made a Difference in the Environment: Earth Times, USA
1995 : International Women’s Hall of Fame, International Women’s Forum Leadership Foundation, USA
1994 : The Order of the Golden Ark Award, the Netherlands
1993 : The Jane Addams Leadership Award, Jane Addams Conference, USA
1993 : The Edinburgh Medal, Medical Research Council, Scotland
1991 : The Hunger Project’s Africa Prize for Leadership, United Nations, USA
1991 : Global 500 Hall of Fame: United Nations Environment Programme, USA
1991 : The Goldman Environmental Prize, the Goldman Foundation, USA
1990 : The Offeramus Medal, Benedictine College, USA
1989 : Women of the World Award, WomenAid, UK
1988 : The Windstar Award for the Environment, Windstar Foundation, USA
1986 : Better World Society Award, USA
1984 : Right Livelihood Award, Sweden
1983 : Woman of the Year Award

Wangari Maathai – Achievements

1977–2002 : Founder and Coordinator, the Green Belt Movement
2002-2011 : Chair of the Board, the Green Belt Movement
2009–2011 : UN Messenger of Peace
2007–2011 : Co-Chair, Congo Basin Forest Fund
2005–2011 : Goodwill Ambassador, Congo Basin Forest Initiative
2005–2007 : Presiding Officer, Economic Social and Cultural Council of the African Union (ECOSOCC)
2005 : Founding Chair, the Green Belt Movement International
2003–2005 : Assistant Minister, Environment, Republic of Kenya
2002–2007 : Member of Parliament, Tetu Constituency, Republic of Kenya
1985 : Founding member, GROOTS International
1973–1980 : Director, Kenya Red Cross

Wangari Maathai – Academic Appointments

2002 : Dorothy McCluskey Visiting Fellow for Conservation, Yale University, USA
2001 : Montgomery Fellow, Dartmouth College, USA
2000 : Endowed Chair in Gender & Women’s Studies named “Fuller-Maathai,” Connecticut College
1977 : Associate Professor, Department of Veterinary Anatomy, University of Nairobi
1976 : Chair, Department of Veterinary Anatomy, University of Nairobi

Wangari Maathai – Membership

Board Member, Prince Albert of Monaco Foundation, Monaco
Board Member, the Oslo Award, Norway
Board Member, the Chirac Foundation, France
Board Member, Discovery Channel’s Planet Green, USA
Board Member, the Congo Basin Forest Fund, Tunisia
Board Member, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, Norway
Jury Member, Goldman Environmental Prize, USA
Paul Harris Fellow, Rotary International, USA
Advisory Board, Clinton Global Initiative, USA
Fellow 2004, Yale McCluskey Fellowship, USA
Member, Yale Leadership Council, USA
Member, UN Commission on Global Governance, USA
Member, Advisory Board, Democracy Coalition Project, USA
Member, Earth Charter Commission, USA
Selection Committee, Sasakawa Environmental Prize, United Nations Environment Programme, Kenya
Board Member, World Learning USA
Board Member, Green Cross International
Board Member, the WorldWIDE Network of Women in Environmental Work, USA

Wangari Maathai – Green Belt Movement

Returning to Kenya in 1966, Wangari Maathai was shocked at the degradation of the forests and the farmland caused by deforestation. Heavy rains had washed away much of the topsoil, silt was clogging the rivers, and fertilizers were depriving the soil of nutrients. Wangari Maathai decided to solve the problem by planting trees.

On 5 June 1977, marking World Environment Day, the NCWK marched in a procession from Kenyatta International Conference Centre in downtown Nairobi to Kamukunji Park on the outskirts of the city where they planted seven trees in honor of historical community leaders. This was the first “Green Belt” which was first known as the “Save the Land Harambee” and then became the Green Belt Movement. Maathai encouraged the women of Kenya to plant tree nurseries throughout the country, searching nearby forests for seeds to grow trees native to the area. She agreed to pay the women a small stipend for each seedling which was later planted elsewhere.

In 1982, when she wanted to run for Tetu Parliamentary seat she was denied the chance citing that she was ineligible to run for office because she had not re- registered to vote in 1979. Since had quit her job at the University of Nairobi Wangari Maathai moved into a small home she had purchased years before, and focused on the NCWK while she searched for employment. In the course of her work through the NCWK, she was approached by Wilhelm Elsrud, executive director of the Norwegian Forestry Society. He wished to partner with the Green Belt Movement and offered her the position of coordinator. Employed again, Wangari Maathai poured her efforts into the Green Belt Movement. Along with the partnership for the Norwegian Forestry Society, the movement had also received “seed money” from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Women. These funds allowed for the expansion of the movement, for hiring additional employees to oversee the operations, and for continuing to pay a small stipend to the women who planted seedlings throughout the country. It allowed her to refine the operations of the movement, paying a small stipend to the women’s husbands and sons who were literate and able to keep accurate records of seedlings planted.
The UN held the third global women’s conference in Nairobi. During the conference, Wangari Maathai arranged seminars and presentations to describe the work the Green Belt Movement was doing in Kenya. She escorted delegates to see nurseries and plant trees. She met Peggy Snyder, the head of UNIFEM, and Helvi Sipilä, the first woman appointed a UN assistant secretary general. The conference helped to expand funding for the Green Belt Movement and led to the movement’s establishing itself outside Kenya. In 1986, with funding from UNEP, the movement expanded throughout Africa and led to the foundation of the Pan-African Green Belt Network. Forty-five representatives from fifteen African countries travelled to Kenya over the next three years to learn how to set up similar programs in their own countries to combat desertification, deforestation, water crises, and rural hunger. The attention the movement received in the media led to Maathai’s being honoured with numerous awards. The government of Kenya, however, demanded that the Green Belt Movement separate from the NCWK, believing the latter should focus solely on women’s issues, not the environment. Therefore, in 1987, Wangari Maathai stepped down as chairman of the NCWK and focused on the newly separate non-governmental organization.

In the latter half of the 1980s, the Kenyan government came down against Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement. The single-party regime opposed many of the movement’s positions regarding democratic rights. The government invoked a colonial-era law prohibiting groups of more than nine people from meeting without a government license. In 1988, the Green Belt Movement carried out pro-democracy activities such as registering voters for the election and pressing for constitutional reform and freedom of expression. The government carried out electoral fraud in the elections to maintain power, according to Maathai.

In October 1989, Maathai learned of a plan to construct the 60-story Kenya Times Media Trust Complex in Uhuru Park. The complex was intended to house the headquarters of KANU, the Kenya Times newspaper, a trading centre, offices, an auditorium, galleries, shopping malls, and parking space for 2,000 cars. The plan also included a large statue of President Daniel arap Moi. Maathai wrote many letters in protest to, among others, the Kenya Times, the Office of the President, the Nairobi city commission, the provincial commissioner, the minister for environment and natural resources, the executive directors of UNEP and the Environment Liaison Centre International, the executive director of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the ministry of public works, and the permanent secretary in the department of international security and administration all received letters. She wrote to Sir John Johnson, the British high commissioner in Nairobi, urging him to intervene with Robert Maxwell, a major shareholder in the project, equating the construction of a tower in Uhuru Park to such construction in Hyde Park or Central Park and maintaining that it could not be tolerated
The government refused to respond to her inquiries and protests, instead responding through the media that Maathai was “a crazy woman”; that denying the project in Uhuru Park would take more than a small portion of public park land; and proclaiming the project as a “fine and magnificent work of architecture” opposed by only the “ignorant few.” On 8 November 1989, Parliament expressed outrage at Maathai’s actions, complaining of her letters to foreign organizations and calling the Green Belt Movement a bogus organization and its members “a bunch of divorcees”. They suggested that if Maathai was so comfortable writing to Europeans, perhaps she should go live in Europe.

Despite Maathai’s protests, as well as popular protest growing throughout the city, ground was broken at Uhuru Park for construction of the complex on 15 November 1989. Wangari Maathai sought an injunction in the Kenya High Court to halt construction, but the case was thrown out on 11 December. In his first public comments pertaining to the project, President Daniel arap Moi stated that those who opposed the project had “insects in their heads”. On 12 December, in Uhuru Park, during a speech celebrating independence from the British, President Moi suggested Wangari Maathai be a proper woman in the African tradition and respect men and be quiet.She was forced by the government to vacate her office, and the Green Belt Movement was moved into her home. The government then audited the Green Belt Movement in an apparent attempt to shut it down. Despite all this, her protests, the government’s response – and the media coverage it garnered – led foreign investors to cancel the project in January 1990.

In January 1992, it came to the attention of Wangari Maathai and other pro-democracy activists that a list of people were targeted for assassination and that a government-sponsored coup was possible. Maathai’s name was on the list. The pro-democracy group, known as the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), presented its information to the media, calling for a general election. Later that day, Wangari Maathai received a warning that one of their members had been arrested. Wangari Maathai decided to barricade herself in her home. Shortly thereafter, police arrived and surrounded the house. She was besieged for three days before police cut through the bars she had installed on her windows, came in, and arrested her. She and the other pro-democracy activists who had been arrested were charged with spreading malicious rumours, sedition and treason. After a day and a half in jail, they were brought to a hearing and released on bail. A variety of international organizations and eight senators (including Al Gore and Edward M. Kennedy) put pressure on the Kenyan government to substantiate the charges against the pro-democracy activists or risk damaging relations with the United States. In November 1992, the Kenyan government dropped the charges.

On 28 February 1992, while released on bail, Wangari Maathai and others took part in a hunger strike in a corner of Uhuru Park, which they labelled Freedom Corner, to pressure the government to release political prisoners. After four days of hunger strike, on 3 March 1992, the police forcibly removed the protesters. Maathai and three others were knocked unconscious by police and hospitalized.[43] President Daniel arap Moi called her “a mad woman” and “a threat to the order and security of the country”. The attack drew international criticism. The US State Department said it was “deeply concerned” by the violence and by the forcible removal of the hunger strikers. When the prisoners were not released, the protesters – mostly mothers of those in prison – moved their protest to All Saints Cathedral, seat of the Anglican Archbishop in Kenya, across from Uhuru Park. The protest there continued, with Wangari Maathai contributing frequently, until early 1993, when the prisoners were finally released.

During this time, Wangari Maathaiwas recognized with various awards internationally, but the Kenyan government did not appreciate her work. In 1991 she received the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco and the Hunger Project’s Africa Prize for Leadership in London. CNN aired a three-minute segment about the Goldman prize, but when it aired in Kenya, that segment was cut out. In June 1992, during the long protest at Uhuru Park, both Maathai and President arap Moi travelled to Rio de Janeiro for the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit). The Kenyan government accused Wangari Maathai of inciting women and encouraging them to strip at Freedom Corner, urging that she not be allowed to speak at the summit. Despite this, Wangari Maathai was chosen to be a chief spokesperson at the summit.

Wangari Maathai – AIDS

Controversy arose when it was reported by The Standard that Wangari Maathai had claimed HIV/AIDS was “deliberately created by Western scientists to decimate the African population.” Wangari Maathai denied making the allegations, but The Standard has stood by its reports.

In a 2004 interview with Time, in response to questions concerning that report, Wangari Maathai replied, “I have no idea who created AIDS and whether it is a biological agent or not. But I do know things like that don’t come from the moon. I have always thought that it is important to tell people the truth, but I guess there is some truth that must not be too exposed,” and when asked what she meant, she continued, “I’m referring to AIDS. I am sure people know where it came from. And I’m quite sure it did not come from the monkeys.” In response she issued the following statement:

“ I have warned people against false beliefs and misinformation such as attributing this disease to a curse from God or believing that sleeping with a virgin cures the infection. These prevalent beliefs in my region have led to an upsurge in rape and violence against children. It is within this context, also complicated by the cultural and religious perspective, that I often speak. I have therefore been shocked by the ongoing debate generated by what I am purported to have said. It is therefore critical for me to state that I neither say nor believe that the virus was developed by white people or white powers in order to destroy the African people. Such views are wicked and destructive.”

Wangari Maathai – Posthumous recognition

Wangari Maathai memorial trees and garden at the University of Pittsburgh
On what would have been her 73rd birthday, 1 April 2013, Maathai was posthumously honoured with a Google Doodle.

On 25 September 2013, the Wangari Maathai Trees and Garden was dedicated on the lawn of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning.[75] The memorial includes two red maples symbolizing Maathai’s “commitment to the environment, her founding of the Green Belt Movement, and her roots in Kenya and in Pittsburgh” and a flower garden planted in a circular shape that representing her “global vision and dedication to the women and children of the world” with an ornamental maple tree in the middle signifying “how one small seed can change the world”.

In 2014, at what would have been her 50-year reunion, her Mount St. Scholastica classmates and Benedictine College unveiled a statue of the Nobel laureate at her alma mater’s Atchison, Kansas campus.

Wangari Maathai – Family

Wangari Maathai and her husband, Mwangi Mathai, separated in 1977. After a lengthy separation, Mwangi filed for divorce in 1979. Mwangi was said to have believed Wangari was “too strong-minded for a woman” and that he was “unable to control her”. In addition to naming her as “cruel” in court filings, he publicly accused her of adultery with another Member of Parliament, which in turn was thought to cause his high blood pressure and the judge ruled in Mwangi’s favour. Shortly after the trial, in an interview with Viva magazine, Maathai referred to the judge as either incompetent or corrupt.The interview later led the judge to charge Maathai with contempt of court. She was found guilty and sentenced to six months in jail. After three days in Lang’ata Women’s Prison in Nairobi, her lawyer formulated a statement which the court found sufficient for her release. Shortly after the divorce, her former husband sent a letter via his lawyer demanding that Maathai drop his surname. She chose to add an extra “a” instead.

The divorce had been costly, and with lawyers’ fees and the loss of her husband’s income, Maathai found it difficult to provide for herself and her children on her university wages. An opportunity arose to work for the Economic Commission for Africa through the United Nations Development Programme. As this job required extended travel throughout Africa and was based primarily in Lusaka, Zambia, she was unable to bring her children with her. Maathai chose to send them to her ex-husband and take the job. While she visited them regularly, they lived with their father until 1985

Wangari Maathai – Publications

  • The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience. Lantern Books. 2004. ISBN 978-1-59056-040-2.; (1985)
  • The bottom is heavy too: even with the Green Belt Movement : the Fifth Edinburgh Medal Address (1994)
  • Bottle-necks of development in Africa (1995)
  • The Canopy of Hope: My Life Campaigning for Africa, Women, and the Environment (2002)
  • Unbowed: A Memoir (2006) ISBN 9780307492333
  • Reclaiming rights and resources women, poverty and environment (2007)
  • Rainwater Harvesting (2008)
  • State of the world’s minorities 2008: events of 2007 (2008)
  • The Challenge for Africa. Anchor Books. 2010. ISBN 978-0-307-39028-8.; (2009)
  • Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril. (2010) chapter Nelson, Michael P. and Kathleen Dean
  • Moore (eds.). Trinity University Press, ISBN 9781595340665
  • Replenishing the Earth (2010) ISBN 978-0-307-59114-2


Wangari Maathai Photo

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai








Wangari Maathai Video