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Wangari Maathai Biography

David Brancaccio interviews environmentalist and women's rights advocate Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, about how battles for the environment play out in the developing world.

In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other.

That time is now.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has challenged the world to broaden the understanding of peace: there can be no peace without equitable development; and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space. This shift is an idea whose time has come. -- Wangari Maathai, Nobel Prize Address, 2004

Find out more about NOW's coverage of the global environment and the world of women.

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya (Africa) in 1940. The first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Price, Dr. Maathai is also the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. She pursued doctoral studies in Germany and the University of Nairobi, obtaining a Ph.D. (1971) from the University of Nairobi where she also taught veterinary anatomy. She became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and an associate professor in 1976 and 1977 respectively.

Wangari Maathai was active in the National Council of Women of Kenya in 197687 and was its chairman in 198187. It was while she served in the National Council of Women that she introduced the idea of planting trees with the people in 1976 and continued to develop it into a broad-based, grassroots organization whose main focus is the planting of trees with women groups in order to conserve the environment and improve their quality of life. Through the Green Belt Movement, she has assisted women in planting more than 30 million trees on their farms and on schools and church compounds.

In 1986, the Movement established a Pan-African Green Belt Network and has exposed over 40 individuals from other African countries to the approach. Some of these individuals have established similar tree planting initiatives in their own countries or they use some of the Green Belt Movement methods to improve their efforts. So far some countries have successfully launched such initiatives include: Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe.

Prof. Maathai serves on the boards of several organizations including the UN Secretary General's Advisory Board on Disarmament, The Jane Goodall Institute, Women and Environment Development Organization (WEDO), World Learning for International Development, Green Cross International, Environment Liaison Center International, the WorldWIDE Network of Women in Environmental Work and National Council of Women of Kenya.

In December 2002, Prof. Maathai was elected to the Kenyan parliament with an overwhelming 98% of the vote. She was subsequently appointed by the President as Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife in Kenya's ninth parliament.

Further information on Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement:

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