Dr. Wangari Maathai (1940-2011)


President and Senior Scientist Dr. Eric A. Davidson

The world has lost one of those rare individuals who really saw the big picture. Dr. Wangari Maathai, the first woman from Africa to win the Nobel Peace Prize, died Monday after a battle with cancer; she was 71. Maathai was much more than the environmentalist who founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. She had the vision that planting trees would not only help conserve soil and reverse deforestation, but would also empower Africa’s most impoverished people, especially women and girls, by giving them access to resources like firewood for cooking and clean water. Her organization has planted more than 40 million trees. Born in 1940, Maathai was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree and she was elected to Kenya’s parliament. She led by example, both in her personal life and in her public service.

The loss is especially sad for us at the Woods Hole Research Center, as we have been building a partnership with the Green Belt Movement. Just last week, our Pan-Tropical Scholar Project, led by Dr. Nadine Laporte, hosted 15 visiting scholars from southeast Asia, South America, and Africa, to train them on forest measurement and monitoring. One of the most remarkable scholars was Peter Ndunda from the Green Belt Movement. Following Wangari’s vision, Peter has been participating in our scholar program for three years, learning from WHRC scientists how to best document the carbon that all those planted trees are soaking up from the atmosphere so that the farmers can claim carbon credits that help their families make ends meet. Frequently, this extra bit of income tips the balance for making it possible for their kids to attend school in addition to the other benefits that the trees provide. We send Peter our thoughts during this time of grieving.

We were also working with another Green Belt Movement leader, Francesca de Gasparis, to organize a side event at the upcoming Conference of the Parties meeting in Durban, South Africa, in December 2011. Various NGOs are encouraged to buddy up for these side events, finding a partner organization that has complementary objectives and mission to offer a combined side event on a topic of mutual interest. Our organizations made a good fit, as we at the WHRC are working on the tools for monitoring forests from satellites orbiting the Earth and on studies of how tropical countries can benefit from international payments for forests, and the Green Belt Movement is literally putting our tools and analyses to work on the ground to benefit people. We proposed to partner with the Green Belt Movement and were delighted when they also chose us. Wangari Maathai would have hosted our joint event.

While it is too early to know for sure, my guess is that we will move ahead with our proposed joint side event, and, as Wangari would have wanted, we will persist with our Kenyan friends in our collaborative pursuit of progress on valuing trees for empowering people. Her inspirational leadership and vision will live on in our work and that of others to demonstrate the very real benefits to people of a healthy environment.