World Pays Tribute to Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Champion for Environment and Women’s RightsPhoto courtesy of United Nations
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, President Obama, and other world leaders today paid tribute to Professor Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and one of Africa’s foremost environmental campaigners, who died on Sunday. She was 71.
“It is with great sadness that the family of Professor Wangari Maathai announces her passing away on 25th September, 2011, at the Nairobi Hospital, after a prolonged and bravely borne struggle with cancer. Her loved ones were with her at the time,” the Green Belt Movement announced on its website. Maathai was the founder of the Green Belt Movement that encouraged women in rural Kenya to plant trees to improve their livelihoods through better access to clean water, firewood for cooking and other resources. Her movement planted an estimated 45 million trees in Africa and assisted nearly 900,000 women to establish tree nurseries and plant trees to reverse the effects of deforestation, according to the United Nations tribute to her.
“Her passing is a loss for the people of Kenya and the world,” Ban Ki-moon said in a statement published on the UN website. Maathai was a “globally recognized champion for human rights and women’s empowerment” and a “pioneer in articulating the links between human rights, poverty, environmental protection and security,” he added.
“She was a visionary who saw over the tree canopy, but never lost sight of the roots.”
“She was a visionary who saw over the tree canopy, but never lost sight of the roots,” said Jan McAlpine, Director of the Secretariat of the UN Forum on Forests, adding that Maathai was a great woman and a wonderful leader who made a difference both in Kenya and around the world, one tree at a time.
“Wangari Maathai was a force of nature,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said in a news release. “While others deployed their power and life force to damage, degrade and extract short term profit from the environment, she used hers to stand in their way, mobilize communities and to argue for conservation and sustainable development over destruction.
“She was, like the acacias and the Prunus Africana trees Wangari fought so nobly and assiduously to conserve, strong in character and able to survive sometimes the harshest of conditions,” he added.
Nobel Peace Prize
The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2004 to Maathai for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.
“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,” the Committee said when it announced its decision to award her the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Maathai combines science, social commitment and active politics. More than simply protecting the existing environment, her strategy is to secure and strengthen the very basis for ecologically sustainable development,” the Committee added.
Related Blog Post: Wangari Muta Maathai: A Life of Firsts
“It is with great sadness that I learned of the passing of Professor Wangari Maathai,” Obama said in his statement today. “On behalf of all Americans, Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to Professor Maathai’s family and the people of Kenya at this difficult time.
“The world mourns … and celebrates the extraordinary life of this remarkable woman who devoted her life to peacefully protecting what she called ‘our common home and future.’ The work of the Greenbelt Movement stands as a testament to the power of grassroots organizing, proof that one person’s simple idea — that a community should come together to plant trees — can make a difference, first in one village, then in one nation, and now across Africa.
“Professor Maathai’s tireless efforts earned her not only a Nobel Peace Prize and numerous prestigious awards, but the respect of millions who were inspired by her commitment to conservation, democracy, women’s empowerment, the eradication of poverty, and civic engagement.
“Professor Maathai further advanced these objectives through her service in the Kenyan government, the African Union, and the United Nations. As she told the world, ‘we must not tire, we must not give up, we must persist.’ Her legacy will stand as an example to all of us to persist in our pursuit of progress,” Obama said.
Mwai Kibaki, President of Kenya: “With the passing on of Professor Maathai, the country and the world has not only lost a renowned environmentalist and but also a great human rights crusader. Indeed in 2004, the late Professor was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her contribution in environmental conservation, good governance, human rights and democracy.
“As part of her environmental conservation efforts, the late Professor Maathai started the Green Belt Movement, an NGO that is involved in reforestation programmes throughout the country.
“Professor Maathai was also a hardworking person who always had time for the less privileged in the country. In this regard, the late Nobel Laureate was at the forefront in advocating for women empowerment, especially at the grassroots level.
“In politics, the late Professor Maathai will be remembered for the role she played in agitating for political reforms that paved the way for the country’s second liberation. In her quest to serve Kenyans in different spheres, the late Professor Maathai vied and became the Member of Parliament for Tetu and an Assistant Minister in the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.
“Although she has physically left us, her good deeds will live and continue to inspire us for many years to come.”
“Socially, the late Professor Maathai was an amiable person and those who interacted with her benefited from her wisdom and generosity.
“We take consolation that although she has physically left us, her good deeds will live and continue to inspire us for many years to come.”
(TAKING ROOT: The Vision of Wangari Maathai, video by PBS)
Former Vice President Al Gore: “Wangari overcame incredible obstacles to devote her life to service—service to her children, to her constituents, to the women, and indeed all the people of Kenya– and to the world as a whole … She worked tirelessly both as an elected Member of Parliament and an Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources. She forged new ground for women in Kenya helping shatter what we would call the “glass ceiling” in the United States. And, she found her true passion as the founder of the Greenbelt Movement. As the first environmentalist and first African woman to earn the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari served as a true inspiration to us all.”
Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory: “It was with great sadness that we learned today of the passing of this exceptional environmental activist. Her work with the Green Belt Movement in Kenya and as an activist for civil and women’s rights in Kenya and beyond received worthy recognition internationally when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2004.
“We were honoured in 2005 to have had Prof Maathai, then Deputy Minister of Environment in Kenya, deliver the Third Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture. (Read the Third Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture Address by Professor Maathai.) “We need people who love Africa so much that they want to protect her from destructive processes,” she said in her address. ‘There are simple actions we can take. Start by planting ten trees we each need to absorb the carbon dioxide we exhale. Practise the 3R campaign (reduce, re-use, repair and re-use, which is mottainai in Japanese), get involved in local initiatives and volunteer your time for services in your community. Governments should prioritise technical schools and give people knowledge and skills for self-employment.'”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, 1984: Wangari Maathai understood and acted on the inextricable links between poverty, rights and environmental sustainability. One can but marvel at her foresight and the scope of her success. She was a true African heroine. Our condolences go to Professor Maathai’s family, to the people of Kenya, and to the countless women (and men) across Africa and the world to whom she was an inspiration.
National Geographic Magazine: Listen to Wangari Maathai talk about her journey to environmental awareness, her hopes for Kenya, and the good that can come from empowering the people.
National Geographic News Watch: Establishing Roots: An Interview with Wangari Maathai
National Geographic News: Kenyan’s Painful Path to Nobel Peace Prize
Casaubon’s Book (ScienceBlogs): Remembering Wangari Maathai
Turnstyle News: A Young Environmentalist’s Encounter with Wangari Maathai
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