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Wangari Maathai died

September 27, 2011

A great teacher and an inspiration for many has left. She died from ovarian cancer in a hospital in Nairobi. One can only hope, that she died peacefully. Cancer can be painful and even if enough morphine is provided, the patients suffer, because morphine degenerates the brain and the personality slowly disintegrates. She was surrounded by her children, maybe that was consolation enough to make her last moments bearable.

She died at a time, when all climate negotiations have failed and the ruling elites cynically try to exploit the ensuing ecological catastrophes with fraudulent carbon trading schemes (REED), with land grabs and hoarding of commodities.

Wangari Maathai  won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, but that doesn’t amount to much, Menachem Begin, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, and Barrack Obama also won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Wangari Maathai won the Right Livelihood Award in 1984, and here she is in exclusively good company:

Asha Hago Elmi, who got the award in 2008, is working for peace and women’s rights in Somalia. She is founder and Chairlady of Save Somali Women and Children (SSWC), which helps Somali women overcome violence and poverty.

Fellow Kenyan Dekha Ibrahim Abdi, Right Livelihood laureate in 2007, unfortunately died in June in a car accident. Ruth Manorama, India’s most effective organizer of and advocate for Dalit women, won the award in 2006. Amy Goodman, the host of Democracy Now, Maude Barlow, Irene Fernandez, Bianca Jagger, Monika Hauser, are other Right Livelihood Award laureates.

Wangari Maathai thought, that women must be in leadership of the necessary next transformation, she was not only an environmentalist, she was also a feminist.

She was a pioneer from an early age and in many spheres. After winning a scholarship to study in the US, she returned to Kenya, becoming the first woman in east and central Africa to obtain a PhD. She was also the first female professor at the University of Nairobi, where she taught veterinary medicine.

Her work with voluntary groups alerted her to the struggles of women in rural Kenya, and it quickly became her life’s cause. Noticing how the rapid environmental degradation was affecting women’s lives, she encouraged them to plant trees to ensure future supplies of firewood and to protect water sources and crops.

She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, which grew from a tree planting initiative to a campaign for social, economic, and political change, setting her on a collision course with the corrupt government of Daniel arap Moi. In 1989, Maathai’s protests forced Moi to abandon plans to erect an office tower in Uhuru Park, an oasis of green that flanks the main highway running through the center of the Kenyan capital Nairobi. In 1999, Maathai was beaten and whipped by guards during a protest against the sale of public land in the Karura Forest.

Maathai’s movement spread across Africa and has gone on to plant more than 47 million trees to slow deforestation and erosion. She joined the UN Environment Program in 2006 to launch a campaign to plant a billion trees worldwide.

There are hundreds other initiatives around the world (MillionTreesNYC, “Tree the Town” in Texas, Chicago Tree Initiative, Marylanders Plant Trees, W1W Tree Planting Initiative, Plant-a-Tree by Wild Asia, Tree People), to name just a few, but all these public, private or corporate sponsored initiatives will not be able to restore the lost forests and avoid a catastrophic ecological breakdown.

To make up for the loss of trees over the past decade, 130 million hectares (or 1.3 million square kilometers), an area as large as Peru, would have to be reforested. Accomplishing that would mean planting about 14 billion trees every year for 10 years in a row, the equivalent of every person on Earth planting and caring for at least two seedlings annually. I planted my two trees this summer in our garden, a cherry tree and an apple tree. One of our neighbors cut down two of her trees — were my efforts all in vain?

Wangari Maathai was an eco-terrorist. She hindered and prevented the building of roads, the conversion of forests to agricultural land, the clear-cutting and timber trading. Activists all over the world followed and still follow in her footsteps, they are harassed, arrested, beaten, prosecuted, jailed, sometimes killed.

In Brazil, Chico Mendes, murdered 1988, became an environmental martyr and an inspiration for activists. Unfortunately many others shared his fate. Obede Loyla Souza was killed in June because he denounced illegal logging, it was the sixth murder since May. Joao Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife were murdered on a nature reserve in Para state, where they had been working for the past 24 years. The couple had received numerous threats in the past two years for their environmental activism but was refused police protection.

Right now in Bolivia, indigenous Peoples from TIPNIS (Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Secure) have been marching against a new highway that the government of Bolivia wants to build through the protected territory. More than 1,600 people have joined the 375-mile journey from the eastern lowlands of Bolivia to La Paz. Police rounded up hundreds of marchers and forced them onto buses in an operation that left several people injured. The detained activists were later freed by angry residents, while the police fled.

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Related infos in my earlier posts:

Are my friends dying?
Essential questions

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