The woman who helped reforest a country

Nic Bothma/European Pressphoto Agency

Many thanks to Perle Besserman for sending me the link to Jeffrey Gettleman’s article on Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai. Here are some excerpts:

Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist who began a movement to reforest her country by paying poor women a few shillings to plant trees and who went on to become the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, died [in Nairobi, Kenya] on Sunday. She was 71.

The cause was cancer, said her organization, the Green Belt Movement. Kenyan news outlets said that she had been treated for ovarian cancer in the past year and that she had been in a hospital for at least a week before she died.

Dr. Maathai, one of the most widely respected women on the continent, played many roles — environmentalist, feminist, politician, professor, rabble-rouser, human rights advocate and head of the Green Belt Movement, which she founded in 1977. Its mission was to plant trees across Kenya to fight erosion and to create firewood for fuel and jobs for women.

Dr. Maathai was as comfortable in the gritty streets of Nairobi’s slums or the muddy hillsides of central Kenya as she was hobnobbing with heads of state. She won the Peace Prize in 2004 for what the Nobel committee called “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” It was a moment of immense pride in Kenya and across Africa.

Her Green Belt Movement has planted more than 30 million trees in Africa and has helped nearly 900,000 women, according to the United Nations, while inspiring similar efforts in other African countries.

“Wangari Maathai was a force of nature,” said Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations’ environmental program. He likened her to Africa’s ubiquitous acacia trees, “strong in character and able to survive sometimes the harshest of conditions.”

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