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Dr. Wangari Maathai P'94, P'96, L.H.D. '94

Wangari Maathai, who, through the simple act of planting trees created an international movement connecting economic and social development with environmental sustainability, has died at the age of 71 after battling cancer. The founder of the Green Belt Movement and the first African woman and the first environmentalist to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Maathai was the parent of two HWS graduates and the recipient of an HWS honorary degree and the Colleges' Elizabeth Blackwell Award.

Maathai last visited campus on April 24, 2008 when she was presented with the Blackwell Award. While here, she planted a Peace Tree on campus and spoke to a standing-room only audience in the Smith Opera House, encouraging students, faculty, staff and community members to become involved in community service and the environmental movement.

Born in Nyeri, Kenya, the daughter of farmers in the highlands of Mount Kenya, she attended college in the United States as part of the "Kennedy airlift" scholarship program and earned her Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi, where she also taught veterinary anatomy. She became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976, the first woman in the region to do so.

In the 1970s, Maathai became active in a number of environmental and humanitarian organizations in Nairobi, including the National Council of Women of Kenya. Through her work, she learned about the deteriorating environmental and social conditions affecting poor, rural Kenyans. Maathai believed that planting trees would solve many of their problems.

She introduced her tree-planting concept to citizens in 1976, and the Green Belt Movement was formally established in 1977. Through her visionary efforts, Maathai worked to organize women's groups to plant trees, conserve the environment and empower themselves by improving their quality of life.

She helped plant more than 47 million trees across Africa, significantly improving the environment by curtailing the devastating effects of deforestation and desertification. Today, 6,000 village-based tree nurseries - run entirely by women - have been established in Kenya, and the Green Belt Movement has spread to more than 30 countries, including Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.

In 1986 the Movement established a Pan African Green Belt Network, which has taught people from other African countries the Green Belt Movement's approach to environmental conservation and community building. In 1998, Maathai joined the campaign of the Jubilee 2000 Coalition. As co-chair of the Jubilee 2000 Africa Campaign, she played a leading role in seeking the cancellation of the overwhelming and unpayable debts of poor countries in Africa. She also campaigned tirelessly against land grabbing and the theft of public forests.

In the course of her work, Maathai has been tear-gassed, beaten and imprisoned. During the regime of President Arap Moi, she was violently attacked for demanding multi-party elections and an end to political corruption and tribal politics. In 1989, Maathai almost single-handedly saved Nairobi's Uhuru Park by stopping the construction of the 60-story Kenya Times Media Trust business complex.

Her commitment to a democratic Kenya never faltered. In December 2002, she was elected as Member of Parliament. In 2003, President Mwai Kibaki appointed her Deputy Minister for the Environment in the new government. Maathai brought her strategy of grassroots empowerment and commitment to participatory, transparent governance to the Ministry.

As an MP, she emphasized reforestation, forest protection and the restoration of degraded land. She fought for education initiatives, including scholarships for those orphaned by HIV/AIDS, and expanded access to voluntary counseling and testing for those living with HIV/AIDS.

In 2004, Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her work for sustainable development, democracy, and peace—the first African woman and the first environmentalist to receive this honor.

Recently, Maathai co-founded the Nobel Women's Initiative with five fellow peace laureates to advocate for justice, equality, and peace worldwide. She continued to play a role in global efforts to address climate change, serving as presiding officer of the African Union's Economic, Social, and Cultural Council; co-chair of the Congo Basin Forest Fund; and a trustee of the Karura Forest Environmental Education Trust.

In 2010, in partnership with the University of Nairobi, she established the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies, which brings together academic research with the Green Belt Movement's grass-roots approach.

She was internationally recognized for her persistent struggle for democracy, human rights and environmental conservation. She and the Green Belt Movement have received numerous awards, most notably the Nobel Peace Prize. She has also been honored by international governments, including the Order of the Rising Sun (Japan, 2009), the Legion D'Honneur (France, 2006), and Elder of the Golden Heart and Elder of the Burning Spear (Kenya, 2004, 2003).

Maathai also received awards from many organizations and institutions throughout the world, including the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights (2007), the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights Lifetime Achievement Award (2006); and honorary doctorates from Yale University and Hobart and William Smith Colleges in the U.S., Ochanomizu University in Japan, and the University of Norway, among others.


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