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Wangari Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contributions to sustainable development, democracy and peace.
Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya, in 1940, the daughter of farmers in the highlands of Mount Kenya. The first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctoral degree, Professor Maathai obtained a degree in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas (1964). She subsequently earned a Master of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh (1966). 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. She was the first woman in the region to attain those positions.
Wangari Maathai served in the National Council of Women of Kenya in 1976-87 and was its chairman from 1981-87. She introduced her tree-planting concept to ordinary citizens in 1976. Professor Maathai went on to develop it into the Green Belt Movement, a broad-based, grassroots organization whose main focus is helping women's groups plant trees to conserve the environment and improve quality of life. Through the Green Belt Movement, she now has helped women plant more than 30 million trees on their farms, on schools, and on church compounds.
In 1986 the Movement established a Pan African Green Belt Network, which has taught more than 40 people from other African countries the Green Belt Movements approach to environmental conservation and community building. Some of these people have established similar tree-planting initiatives in their own countries. Others have gone on to use Green Belt Movement methods to improve their environmental conservation efforts. Several African countries have started similar successful initiatives, including Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe.
In 1998, Professor Maathai joined the campaign of the Jubilee 2000 Coalition. As co-chair of the Jubilee 2000 Africa Campaign, she has played a leading role in seeking the cancellation of the overwhelming and unpayable debts of poor countries in Africa. She also has campaigned tirelessly against land grabbing and the theft of public forests.
Wangari Maathai is internationally recognized for her persistent struggle for democracy, human rights, and environmental conservation. She has addressed the United Nations on several occasions, and she spoke on behalf of women at special sessions of the General Assembly for the five-year review of the 1992 Earth Summit. She has served on the U.N. Commission for Global Governance and the Commission on the Future. She and the Green Belt Movement have received numerous awards, most notably the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.
Professor Maathai is listed in United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Global 500 Hall of Fame and was named one of the 100 Heroines of the World. In June 1997, Professor Maathai was elected by Earth Times as one of 100 people in the world who have made a difference in the environmental arena. In 2005, Professor Maathai was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and by Forbes magazine as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world. She also has received honorary doctoral degrees from several institutions around the world, among them Williams College in Massachusetts (1990), Hobart and William Smith Colleges (1994), the University of Norway (1997) and Yale University (2004).
The Green Belt Movement, Professor Maathai, and their compelling stories are featured in several publications including The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience (Wangari Maathai, 2002), Speak Truth to Power (Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, 2000), Women Pioneers for the Environment (Mary Joy Breton, 1998), Hopes Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet (Frances Moore Lapp and Anna Lapp, 2002), Una Sola Terra: Donna I Medi Ambient Despres de Rio (Brice Lalonde et al., 1998), and Land Ist Leben (Bedrohte Volker, 1993).
Professor Maathai serves on the boards of several organizations, including the UN Secretary General's Advisory Board on Disarmament, the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), World Learning (USA), Green Cross International, Environment Liaison Centre International, the WorldWIDE Network of Women in Environmental Work, and the National Council of Women of Kenya.
In December 2002, Professor Maathai was elected to Kenya's Parliament and was subsequently appointed by Kenya's president as Assistant Minister for the Environment.
In 2005 Wangari Maathai was elected Presiding Officer of the Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC) of the African Union, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Council will advise the African Union on issues related to African civil society. Eleven African heads of state whose countries are on the Congo Basin also appointed her a Goodwill Ambassador for the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem, an advocacy role for the conservation and protection of this vital Ecosystem.
In 2006, French President Jacques Chirac awarded Wangari Maathai France's highest honor, the Legion d'Honneur. The decoration ceremony took place in Paris in April 2006 and was presided over by the French Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, Nelly Olin.