Wangari Maathai

The mother of trees


Wangari Maathai 16 9Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on environmentalism and social justice.

She was born in 1940 into a Kenya still under British colonial rule. Her family worked on farms near her hometown of Nyeri and then in the Great Rift Valley. She excelled at school and was the recipient of a scholarship to go to the US as part of the “Kennedy Airlift” which aimed to make US education accessible to citizens of post-colonial countries.

Maathai studied in Kansas before obtaining a Master’s in biological science from the University of Pittsburgh. After also studying in Germany, Maathai returned to Kenya to complete her PhD in veterinary medicine at the University of Nairobi, where she later joined the faculty and chaired the department. Maathai was the first woman in East Africa to gain a PhD and the first to lead a university department. Maathai was elected as a member of Kenyan parliament in 2002 and served as the Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife. Maathai passed away in 2011.

Environmentalism, social justice, and feminism

In her Nobel citation, the committee noted that Maathai “stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic, and cultural development in Kenya and 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.”

Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 which has since planted over 51 million trees across Kenya. She saw that deforestation was linked to the drying up of local water supplies, increased food insecurity, and wildlife habitat loss.

Maathai was also concerned about how environmental degradation was affecting women’s lives and their ability to feed their families and earn an income. Instead of cooking traditional food grown locally, people were relying on imported goods and fertilisers which degraded the soil, which meant that women had to walk further to collect firewood for heating and cooking. Maathai drew the link between environmental degradation, disempowerment and disenfranchisement of Kenya’s rural poor, especially women.

"Women needed income and they needed resources because theirs were being depleted," Maathai explained. "So we decided to solve both problems together.”

It’s this link between environmentalism, feminism, and development that makes Maathai’s work so important.

Maathai worked at the intersection of feminist theory and environmental protection. She argued that self-empowerment is a fundamental value that can help people address their circumstances by combating apathy and passivity. In her academic study and work as an activist, Maathai called on leaders to address feelings of apathy and create confidence in people and communities to recognise they have the power to act and create change. She believed that self-empowerment manifests in practical actions that make improvements for the greater good.

The more you degrade the environment, the more you dig deeper into poverty

Since its inception, the Green Belt Movement has trained 30,000 women with additional skills such as beekeeping and forestry so that they can earn money and be guardians of their local environment. The Movement delivers seminars in environmental education, alongside technical knowledge, encouraging participants to harness their agency to change their political, economic, and environmental circumstances.

“Nobody would have bothered me if all I did was to encourage women to plant trees.” Maathai said.  

In her Nobel acceptance speech, Maathai said: “I always felt that our work was not simply about planting trees. It was about inspiring people to take charge of their environment, the system that governed them, their lives, and their future.”


Throughout her life, Maathai campaigned for the environment, democracy and women’s rights and frequently denounced the quality of governance across Africa. Much of her activism took place under the single-party regime of Daniel arap Moi who ruled Kenya from 1978 to 2002.

In 1989, plans were revealed to build a large tower block in Uhuru Park – the largest park in Nairobi. Maathai protested in the park and began a lobbying and letter-writing campaign directed at the Kenyan government, the British High Commissioner, and the international press. She was directly challenged by the president for being against progress, but her campaign was ultimately successful as foreign investors eventually dropped out of the project causing the building plans to be shelved.

In 1992, Maathai was arrested for her political activities. While on bail, she campaigned – again in Uhuru Park – for the release of all the other political prisoners. Maathai continued to protest until their release the following year.

Giving up would have given pleasure to the enemy. So I never gave up

Maathai regularly protested plans to privatise parts of Kenya’s forests and give them to the government’s political supporters. Over the years she was regularly arrested and attacked by the Kenyan police forces. However, Maathai continued to campaign for social justice and environmental issues and received international recognition. Although specific mentions of her work were edited out of foreign news bulletins broadcast in Kenya.

Wangari Maathai is a totemic figure in African and global environmentalism. As the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize her legacy is secured. But beyond the accolades, the approach that she advocated for of addressing global challenges by acting locally, and tying environmental protection to social and economic development has become part of mainstream thinking in the battle against climate change. It is this influence that will continue to affect not just rural women in Kenya, but people across the world in the coming years. 

"Professor Wangari Maathai’s passion and commitment to the environment remains legendary. We can see today, the vision she perceived, which was that environment action transcends nature, and is central to socioeconomic growth and social justice. This was a precursor to the Sustainable Development Goals, Just Transition, green growth, and net-zero development that is now integral to global development. What she did transcends generations and serves as a shining example to all of us. As we labour for people and planet, let us learn from Prof Mathai, and aim to leave lasting legacies with our work." Dr Richard Munang, Head, Global Environment Monitoring Systems and Early Warning for Environment Unit, United Nations Environment Programme. 

Reading list

The Green Belt Movement

Unbowed: A memoir

The Challenge for Africa

Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World


Photo credit:  used with permission CC BY 2.0 DEED