Wangari Maathai was a woman of many firsts and a champion of many causes. She was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a PhD and the first woman to hold a leadership position as the Chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and position of Associate Professor at the University of Nairobi in 1976 and 1977 respectively.
Wangari was instrumental in promoting the concept of protecting nature for people’s sake. She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 chiefly to empower rural women in Kenya to plant trees and reverse the catastrophic trend of deforestation. The Movement has since planted over 50 million trees in Kenya. Wangari believed that trees could help poor women suffering deteriorating social and environmental conditions to secure firewood, water and food.
Initially, the Green Belt Movement’s tree-planting did not address issues of democracy and peace, but it soon became clear to Maathai that responsible governance of the environment was impossible without democratic space. The tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya and a way of challenging abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement.

Apart from environmental conservation, Wangari was a champion of many causes including women’s rights, sustainable development, and peace – all issues which she saw as intertwined.
Wangari Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya in 1940. She attended St. Cecilia’s Intermediate Primary School in 1956 and later joined Loreto Girls’ High School in 1959 where she passed with flying colours earning herself a scholarship program of the African American Students Foundation. This scholarship saw her travel to the United States to pursue further studies in 1960. In 1964, she obtained a degree in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas and subsequently a Master of Science degree from University of Pittsburgh in 1966. She obtained a PhD from the University of Nairobi when she was granted Doctorate of Anatomy in 1971.
In the 1970s up to the 1990s, Maathai was involved in women’s and environmental issues and struggle for democracy in Kenya, on some occasions resulting in political imprisonment. Despite several challenges she faced along her path, Wangari was never deterred from her goals.
In 2002, she was elected to Parliament and was subsequently appointed as the Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife. As a Minister, she emphasised grassroots empowerment and commitment to participatory, transparent governance. As a Member of Parliament, she emphasised reforestation, forest protection, and restoration of degraded land and education initiatives including scholarships for those orphaned by HIV/AIDS and so forth.
In 2005, she was elected the first president of the African Union’s Economic, Social and Cultural Council and was later appointed a goodwill ambassador for the initiative aimed at protecting the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem. In 2006, Wangari spearheaded the United Nations Environment Programme Billion Tree Campaign, encouraging people across the world to plant trees for the benefit of their communities. In the same year, she along with other women Nobel Laureates founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative to strengthen work being done in support of women’s rights in the world. In 2007, Maathai became co-chair (with former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin) of the Congo Basin Forest Fund, and in 2009, she was designated a United Nations Messenger of Peace by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
In 2010, she was appointed to the Millennium Development Goals Advocacy Group: a panel of political leaders, business people and activists established with the aim to galvanise worldwide support for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In the same year Maathai became a trustee of the Karura Forest Environmental Education Trust, established to safeguard the public land for whose protection she had fought for almost twenty years. Also in 2010, Wangari Maathai founded the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies in partnership with the University of Nairobi, bringing together academic research with the Green Belt Movement approach.
Over the years, Wangari received numerous honours and awards – the Elder of the Golden Heart and Elder of the Burning Spear by Kenya Government, Order of the Rising Sun by the Japanese Government, the Sophie Prize, the Petra Kelly Prize for Environment, the Conservation Scientist Award, Jane Adams Leadership Award and Woman of the Year award, amongst many others.
Wangari Maathai was Director of Kenya Red Cross from 1973 – 1980. She was active in the National Council of Women of Kenya and was the Council’s Chair in 1981 – 1987. Wangari served in the boards of several organisations including the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament, Women and Environment Development Organisation, Environmental Liaison Center International and National Council of Women of Kenya.
Wangari Maathai died on September 25, 2011 after a battle with cancer at the age of 71 years. Many described her as warm, affectionate and engaging; an inspiration to many, and yet so humble and down-to-earth. “She was a rare visionary who with remarkable dedication and courage, was able to make many of her aspirations come to reality.” From humble beginnings, Wangari rose to become a national and international icon.
All her life, Wangari was determined to make the world a more peaceful, healthier and better place. She never lost sight of what one person can do to change the world. She illustrated this in one of her famous quotes: “I certainly don’t want to be like the animals watching as the planet goes down the drain. I will be a hummingbird. I will do the best I can. “

  • Founder and Coordinator, the Green Belt Movement (1977–2002)
  • Chair of the Board, the Green Belt Movement (2002-2011)
  • UN Messenger of Peace (2009–2011)
  • Co-Chair, Congo Basin Forest Fund (2007–2011)
  • Goodwill Ambassador, Congo Basin Forest Initiative (2005–2011)
  • Presiding Officer, Economic Social and Cultural Council of the African Union (ECOSOCC) (2005–2007)
  • Founding Chair, the Green Belt Movement International (2005) Assistant Minister, Environment, Republic of Kenya (2003–2005)
  • Member of Parliament, Tetu Constituency, Republic of Kenya (2002–2007)
  • Founding member, GROOTS International (1985) Director, Kenya Red Cross (1973–1980)


  • Dorothy McCluskey Visiting Fellow for Conservation, Yale University, USA (2002)
  • Montgomery Fellow, Dartmouth College, USA (2001)
  • Endowed Chair in Gender & Women’s Studies named “Fuller-Maathai,” Connecticut College (2000)
    Associate Professor, Department of Veterinary Anatomy, University of Nairobi (1977)
  • Chair, Department of Veterinary Anatomy, University of Nairobi (1976)
  • Board Member, Prince Albert of Monaco Foundation, Monaco
  • Board Member, the Oslo Award, Norway
  • Board Member, the Chirac Foundation, France
  • Board Member, Discovery Channel’s Planet Green, USA
  • Board Member, the Congo Basin Forest Fund, Tunisia
  • Board Member, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, Norway
  • Jury Member, Goldman Environmental Prize, USA
  • Paul Harris Fellow, Rotary International, USA
  • Advisory Board, Clinton Global Initiative, USA Fellow 2004,
  • Yale McCluskey Fellowship, USA Member, Yale Leadership Council, USA Member, UN Commission on Global Governance, USA Member, Advisory Board, Democracy Coalition Project, USA Member, Earth Charter Commission, USA Selection Committee, Sasakawa Environmental Prize, United Nations Environment Programme, Kenya Board Member, World Learning USA Board Member, Green Cross International Board Member, the WorldWIDE Network of Women in Environmental Work, USA


  • Honorary Doctorate Degree, Kwansei Gakuin University, Japan (2010)
  • Doctor of Humane Letters, Meredith College, USA (2009)
  • Doctor of Science, Egerton University, Kenya (2007)
  • Doctor of Public Service Honoris Causa, University of Pittsburgh, USA (2006)
  • Doctor of Humane Letters, Connecticut College, USA (2006)
  • Doctor of Science, Morehouse College, USA (2006)
  • Doctor of Science, Ochanomizu University, Japan (2005)
  • Doctor of Science, Willamette University, USA (2005)
  • Doctor of Science, University of Nairobi, Kenya (2005)
  • Doctor of Science, Soka University, Japan (2004)
  • Doctor of Science, Aoyama Gakuin University, Japan (2004)
  • Doctor of Law, Yale University, USA (2004)
  • Doctor of Agriculture, University of Norway (1997)
  • Doctor of Science, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, USA (1994)
  • Doctor of Law, Williams College, USA (1990)


  • 2010: Earth Hall of Fame, Kyoto (Japan)
  • 2009: Humanity 4 Water Award for Outstanding Commitment 2 Action
  • 2009: The Order of the Rising Sun, Japan
  • 2009: Judge, 2009 Geotourism Challenge, National Geographic, USA
    2009: NAACP Chairman’s Award, USA
  • 2008: Dignitas Humana Award, St John’s School of Theology, USA
  • 2008: Cinema Verite, Honorary President, France
  • 2008: Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Honorary Fellowship, UK
  • 2007: The Nelson Mandela Award for Health & Human Rights, South Africa
  • 2007: The Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, India
  • 2007: Cross of the Order of St Benedict, Benedictine College, Kansas, USA
  • 2007: World Citizenship Award, World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts
  • 2006: The Indira Gandhi International Award for Peace, Disarmament & Development, India
  • 2006: Premio Defensa Medio Ambiente, Club Internacional De Prensa, Spain
  • 2006: 6th in 100 Greatest Eco-Heroes of All Time, The Environment Agency, UK
  • 2006: Medal for Distinguished Achievement, University of Pennsylvania, USA
  • 2006: Woman of Achievement Award from the American Biographical Institute Inc., USA
  • 2006: The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, Milele (Lifetime) Achievement Award
  • 2006: Legion D’Honneur, Government of France
  • 2006: The IAIA Global Environment Award, International Association for Impact Assessment, Norway
  • 2006: Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund Award, USA
  • 2006: World Citizenship Award
  • 2005: New York Women’s Century Award, New York Women’s Foundation, USA
  • 2005: One of the 100 Most Influential People in the World: Time magazine, USA
  • 2005: One of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World: Forbes magazine, USA
  • 2004: Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Norway
  • 2004: Sophie Prize, the Sophie Foundation, Norway
  • 2004: Elder of the Golden Heart, Republic of Kenya
  • 2004: Petra Kelly Environment Prize, Heinrich Boell Foundation, Germany
  • 2004: J. Sterling Morton Award, Arbor Day Foundation, USA
  • 2004: Conservation Scientist Award, Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, Columbia University, USA 2003: Elder of the Burning Spear, Republic of Kenya
  • 2003: WANGO Environment Award, World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations, USA
  • 2002: Outstanding Vision and Commitment Award, Bridges to Community, USA
  • 2001: Excellence Award, Kenyan Community Abroad, USA
  • 2001: The Juliet Hollister Award, Temple of Understanding, USA
  • 1997: One of 100 in the World Who’ve Made a Difference in the Environment: Earth Times, USA
  • 1995: International Women’s Hall of Fame, International Women’s Forum Leadership Foundation, USA
  • 1994: The Order of the Golden Ark Award, the Netherlands
  • 1993: The Jane Addams Leadership Award, Jane Addams Conference, USA
  • 1993: The Edinburgh Medal, Medical Research Council, Scotland
  • 1991: The Hunger Project’s Africa Prize for Leadership, United Nations, USA
  • 1991: Global 500 Hall of Fame: United Nations Environment Programme, USA
  • 1991: The Goldman Environmental Prize, the Goldman Foundation, USA
  • 1990: The Offeramus Medal, Benedictine College, USA 1989: Women of the World Award, WomenAid, UK
  • 1988: The Windstar Award for the Environment, Windstar Foundation, USA
  • 1986: Better World Society Award, USA
    1984: Right Livelihood Award, Sweden
  • 1983: Woman of the Year Award

The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience (New York: Lantern Books, 2003)
Unbowed: A Memoir (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006; Vintage/Anchor, 2008)
The Challenge for Africa (New York: Pantheon, 2009; Vintage/Anchor, 2010)
Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World (New York: Doubleday Image, 2010)
April 13, 2015
By: Kenya Embassy, Stockholm

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