In Praise of Wangari Maathai

Ethical Markets - R Global Citizen

By Hazel Henderson, Sept. 26, 2011

We who knew and loved Professor Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) wept today on learning of her passing from this life.  Her courage, determination and brilliance lit the imagination of millions of women and men.  I first met Wangari at the UN Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy inNairobi,Kenya, in 1981.  I interviewed her about the need to save the world’s forests – already disappearing from exploitation for construction, housing, burning for fuel and clearing for industrial projects.

Wangari was then a Professor at the University of Nairobi, and I was participating in the conference as a panelist, along with India’s A.K. Reddy and Amory Lovins (USA), on solar energy and the need to transition from the fossil fueled Industrial Era to renewable energy (Politics of the Solar Age).  As a scientist, Wangari Maathai saw this transition as I did, as both urgent and inevitable.  I admired her unfashionable practicality: preserve and plant trees!  Wangari had begun organizing  rural women in Kenya in her Green Belt Movement, which has planted many millions of trees and inspired many other grassroots tree-planting groups worldwide, also following her example and that of the Chipko women’s “tree-huggers” who protected millions ofIndia’s trees.

I remember during my service on the Technology Assessment Advisory Council for the US Congress from 1974-1980 I would urge public support from scientists for Wangari Maathai’s and the Chipko movement’s efforts to protect our planet.  Elite scientists from prestigiousUSuniversities scoffed at my suggestion that the first line of defense of our global environment should be to preserve and plant trees – and therefore publicly celebrate those CSOs campaigns.  The scientists refused to support these movements led by Wangari Maathai and the Chipko Movement.

As Wangari’s fame and influence grew in the world, she was persecuted by politicians and many tribesmen within Kenya, with beating, jail and harassment.  Wangari was honored by environmentalists and activists for social justice and peace.  I was honored that she became a Commissioner of the Global Commission to Fund the United Nations, which I founded in 1995 and whose report I co-edited, The UN: Policy and Financing Alternatives.  We who loved and honored Wangari were thrilled when in 2004 she at last received the Nobel Prize for Peace.  She is with us still, inspiring women everywhere to act courageously for our common future.