Planting Trees for Social Justice
Wangari Maathai was born in the highlands of Kenya where she attended school, worked the land, and yearned to bring democracy and social justice to her country. After high school, she came to America through a grant from the Joseph P Kennedy, Jr. Foundation and received her B.S. and M.Sc. in Biology. She returned to Kenya and became the first woman from East and Central Africa to receive a doctorate degree.
Wangari was active in the National Council of Women of Kenya where in 1976, she introduced community-based tree planting as a means of poverty reduction and environmental conservation. Teams of women were paid to plant trees and learn the importance of eco-conservation. This informal movement developed into the Green Belt Movement, planting more than 20 million trees to help restore Kenya’s forests. She often spoke out concerning the needs of the poorest people in Kenya, often incurring the wrath of corrupt government officials. In 2004, she was the first African women to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Wangari Maathai never gave up speaking for democracy and human rights. She served on many world-recognized commissions about the connection between social justice and environmental conservation. She bravely faced persecution in her home country and fought for fair elections. While she was often criticized for being “too strong for a woman”, she carried on with her important work. She passed away in 2011 from ovarian cancer.