September 25

Wangari Maathai Photo Credit: © World Agroforestry Centre (CC by NC-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Today in Science

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan ecologist and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, died on this day in 2011. The founder of the Green Belt movement, she helped to improve conditions in communities across Africa through environmental conservation, community development, and skill building.

As a young woman in the 1960s, Maathai studied biology in the United States, earning a bachelor's and master's degree, before returning to Africa. She received her Ph.D. in anatomy from what is now known as the University of Nairobi in 1971.

While continuing on at the university as a professor in the early 1970s, Maathai also became involved in local community groups, including the Environment Liaison Centre and the Kenya Red Cross Society. While she was in the leadership of the National Council of Women of Kenya in 1977, she began to work with women to plant "green belts" of trees on farms, school grounds, and church lands as a way to help preserve the land for the use of the people and to empower and employ women in their local communities. The movement also successfully challenged businesses and politicians who sought to develop urban parks and forestland.

After years dedicated to peaceful but subversive, pro-democracy movements in Kenya throughout the late 20th century, Maathai was elected to parliament in 2002, where she was appointed the Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife.

By the mid-'80s, the Green Belt movement had spread across Africa. Since that time, tens of millions of trees have been planted across the land. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

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