62. Wangari Maathai, Mother of Trees

Wangarĩ Muta Maathai (1940 – 2011) was a renowned Kenyan social, environmental and political activist. She became the first African woman, and the first environmentalist, to win the Nobel Peace Prize. It was awarded for her contribution in the field of sustainable development, democracy and peace.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee wrote, “Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment. Maathai stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa. She has taken a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular. She thinks globally and acts locally.”

More than most others, Maathai recognized the connection between the health of the land and the health of the people.

In 1977, she founded the Green Belt Movement (GBM) in response to the needs of rural Kenyan women who reported the streams were drying up, food supplies were less secure, and firewood for fuel and fencing was becoming more scarce.

GBM encourages women to work together (while receiving a small monetary token for their work) to grow seedlings and plant trees to bind the soil, store rainwater and provide food and firewood.

Maathai’s work in this area eventually earned her the nickname “Mama Mici” or Mother of Trees.

“If you destroy the forest,” Maathai said, “then the river will stop flowing, the rains will become irregular, the crops will fail and you will die of hunger and starvation …. Planting trees breaks the cycle. When we can give ourselves food, firewood, and help to nurture soil for planting and clean water, then we begin to roll poverty back”