Wangari Maathai

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) was a tree hugger, literally and figuratively.

www.greenbeltmovement.org

Many extraordinary women have played important roles in the environmental movement. For the women profiled here, devotion to earth justice is connected to the empowerment of women and indigenous communities.

In 1977, Wangari Maathai of Kenya initiated the Green Belt Movement, which mobilized rural women to plant trees to alleviate deforestation and soil erosion. Tree planters earned a stipend for their work in a movement that expanded across Africa.

“In Kenya,” Maathai said, “women are the first victims of environmental degradation, because they are the ones who walk for hours looking for water, who fetch firewood, who provide food for their families.”

The Green Belt Movement promoted economic empowerment for women in their villages. The United Nations funded training programs in bee-keeping, food processing and other local trades. The movement also advocated for women to be included in more decision-making bodies at the local and national levels.

Through her work, Maathai began to understand how illegal logging, restrictions on landowning and improper waste disposal were related to corruption and dictatorship.

Kenya’s longtime president, Daniel Arap Moi, presided over financial corruption, electoral fraud and human rights abuses. Maathai became a leader of Kenya’s democracy movement. She participated in many non-violent protests and hunger strikes. She was arrested repeatedly and was hospitalized once after a beating by police.

Matthai persisted in her activism, garnering international recognition as a speaker at the UN’s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. She won election to Parliament in 2002, serving until 2007, during which time she was Assistant Minister of Environment and Natural Resources.

In 2005, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In her Nobel speech, Maathai acknowledged activists worldwide who “work quietly and often without recognition to protect the environment, promote democracy, defend human rights and ensure equality between women and men. By so doing, they plant seeds of peace.”

India’s Vandana Shiva has been active for decades through her writing, lectures, legal action and community organizing.

Shiva fights against international agribusiness for imposing crop monocultures dependent on genetically modified seeds. She decries its threat to biodiversity and its impact on farmers, who are ruined by debt and land confiscation.

Shiva is especially disturbed by the “bio-piracy” of corporations claiming patents on indigenous plants. In 2005, her Research Foundation along with the European Green Party and a federation of organic farmers won a patent case against W.R. Grace and the U.S. Agriculture Department. They proved that the fungicidal qualities of the neem tree, which is ubiquitous on the Indian subcontinent, were widely known for centuries.

“The free tree will stay free,” Shiva said of the victory at the European Patent Office. “It is a victory of committed citizens over commercial interests and big powers.”

Shiva sees women as both victims of ecological destruction and agents of renewal. She ties the growth of India’s unbalanced gender ratio (currently 940 women for every 1,000 men) to the growth of mechanized and corporate agriculture in the 20th century. Women have become literally more “dispensable” as their value to agriculture has decreased.

Studies indicate that women worldwide place a higher priority than men on sanitation, clean water, nutritious food and the infrastructure that provides them. Women in India and other countries exploited by agribusiness are helping to save and store indigenous seed stocks. With increased education and representation on decision-making bodies, women will play a critical role in re-making our environment.

Jamakaya is an award-winning writer and historian based in Milwaukee.

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