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Mar 1, 2015 5 Min Read

The Environmental Legacy of Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai was the inspiration of a nation, and the inspiration of thousands beyond its borders.

In 1971, she became the first East African woman to receive a PhD. Then, in 2004, she was the first African woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”. But the true legacy of Maathai lives in the hearts and minds of the people she touched, especially the rural Kenyan woman – voiceless and disenfranchised.

Wangari Maathai addresses delegates at the Copenhagen Climate Summit, 2015 (Picture courtesy of National Geographic)

In Wangari Maathai the marginalized mothers found a true role model and advocate. She fought for their rights for a healthy environment, for representation among the higher ranks, and for the chance to earn a decent livelihood. Wangari Maathai was never content with the status quo; from entrenched gender inequities to the poor treatment of Kenya’s urban wetlands, she was a woman who was ready to stand up and fight.

And fight she did!

Maathai strongly campaigned against deforestation of critical forests in Kenya – sometimes known as “water towers” for their role in supplying major rivers. She also worked to rehabilitate an endangered forest in the heart of Nairobi known as “Karura”. Today, it is a protected haven for leisure and recreation, frequented by residents, nature enthusiasts and the odd group of Kijani youth eager for a day’s respite from the urban smog.

Kijani members at a "Fun Day" in Karura forest. Through the work of Maathai, the the 1000ha. indigenous forest has been protected from urban developers

That’s not the end; through her political advocacy, the government of Kenya passed the Forest Act of 2005, an act of parliament to “provide for the establishment, development, and sustainable management… of forest resources” in Kenya. The Kenya Forest Service (KFS) was established to lead the effort, and now manages each of the “gazetted” (meaning under national legal jurisdiction) government forests throughout the country – most of which are highly degraded.

These and other efforts were the seeds of sustainable change sown by the activist Maathai. Kijani itself is an organization that is founded on the legacy of her work. Our close collaboration with the Kenya Forest Service would not be possible without the decades of hardship that Maathai went through to open the eyes of the people, and government, to the need to preserve our natural heritage. Our desire to create lasting models for sustainability, models that people throughout the world can learn from, builds on the belief that Maathai had that we all – however young or old – have the agency to take the future into our own hands.

Making a little difference in Marmanet, Kenya. Here, Kijani member Urs plants a tree with the local chief.

Three years after her passing, it is this small tribute in her honor that we want to leave with our readers and supporters, remembering that, in Maathai’s words, “it’s the little things citizens do that will make the difference”. For Wangari Maathai, her “little thing” was “to plant trees”, and this she did. Because of her, many more millions of trees will be planted in Kenya – and indeed, throughout the world.

What little thing will you do to make a difference?


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  1. Well, even in Germany the message was heard. Wangari Maathai made me aware of the fight that was necessary to bring up a democratic Kenya and indeed she was the one highlighting rural development as a need for a modern society. Thank you for your message!

    • Georg Wagener-Lohse
    • Mar 9, 2015
    • Reply
  2. Thanks for these great words! I want to inspire others to believe that whoever they are, they CAN make a difference!

    Daniel Omondi
    • Daniel Omondi
    • Mar 9, 2015
    • Reply