I was saddened to hear of the death of Wangari Maathai in September. Dr. Maathai was a Kenyan political and environmental activist who founded the Green Belt Movement, an organization focused on treeplanting, conservation, and women's rights. For her work, she was awarded both the Right Livelihood Award and a Nobel Peace Prize. She was also elected to the Kenyan parliament and served as Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources. She died of cancer at age 71.
When I met her in Montreal in 2009, she struck me as a warm, friendly, and intelligent woman with a great sense of humour. Her idea for the greenbelt movement was simple, but not without its challenges. She wanted to organize women to plant
trees as a way to protect resources such as water, wood, and food. This simple idea
became an extraordinary political movement because it empowered women who had been deprived of their basic rights and of ownership of their resources. For her efforts, Dr. Maathai was arrested, beaten, and jailed. But she never backed down.
She proved that human rights and protection of our environment go hand in hand. She also proved that social change can come from peacefully confronting power.
It's been a sad couple of years all around for our movement. As well as Dr. Maathai, we've lost U.S. climate change expert Stephen Schneider, German renewable energy proponent Hermann Scheer, sustainable business leader and Foundation board member Ray Anderson, federal NDP leader Jack Layton, and anti-nuclear activist Dave Martin. These people were great eco-warriors who sacrificed much to help us find better ways of living in this world, and I encourage everyone to learn more about them. I find it excruciating to have lost them. But I am heartened by the thought that no movement is just about its leaders; it's about everyone who cares enough to become informed and to commit to the hard work these people have led and inspired.
The best way for all of us to honour those who have left us is to carry on in their spirit.