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Cambridge University Science Magazine
Whilst this issue was being produced, thousands celebrated Wangari Maathai Day. Previously known as Africa Environment Day, March 3rd now commemorates Africa’s first female Nobel prize winner. As a scientist, environmental activist, and politician, Wangari Maathai empowered women to manage forest nurseries, save public land, and fight for self-determination, justice, and democracy.

Born in 1940 in Ihithe, Kenya, Maathai was raised with a keen respect for local biodiversity and its place in her culture. After studying in the US and Germany, she completed her doctoral thesis in Nairobi and became the first woman in Central or East Africa to obtain a PhD. While continuing her academic research, Maathai campaigned for equal benefits for female university staff. She later proposed the planting of seven trees in downtown Nairobi representing seven community leaders; this was the first 'Green Belt' and marked the birth of a Movement that would eventually plant over 51 million trees.

In 1977, Maathai was appointed as an associate professor at the University of Nairobi, making her the most senior female academic in Kenya. Soon after, however, she was hounded by the press while undergoing divorce proceedings. She later wrote: 'Anybody who had a grudge against modern, educated, and independent women was being given an opportunity to spit on me'. Struggling to provide for her three children, Maathai reluctantly left them with their father and travelled across Africa to work for the Economic Commission for Africa.

From 1978 to 2002, Kenya was governed by the dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi, who enforced a repressive regime in which women had few civil rights. Maathai realised that women were also particularly affected by deforestation; they had to walk further for firewood and water, farm increasingly arid land, and take the entire burden of childcare and housekeeping while their partners migrated to cities for work. A 2019 paper by Rao et al. in Nature Climate Change has shown that this issue is widespread in climate change hotspots across Africa and Asia. Maathai’s Green Belt Movement sought to empower rural women to improve their standard of living by planting forest nurseries. The Movement also protested the development of public land and started programmes to teach women about income-generating activities and sexual health.

Despite strict restrictions on political activism at the time, Maathai achieved significant progress by framing her Movement as a conservation effort. However, after protests at Uhuru Park in 1989, Maathai was warned that her name was on a list of pro-democracy activists targeted for government-sponsored assassination. After barricading herself in her house for three days, she was arrested and charged with offences including treason. The charges were eventually dropped after international pressure. Following a decade-long struggle in which Maathai strove to unite the opposition to the authoritarian government, Maathai was elected as an MP in 2002. In 2004, she became the first environmentalist to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Maathai’s achievements are immense: her Movement planted over 4,000 nurseries, providing income for 150,000 people. Moreover, her impact extends beyond borders. In 2007, nine-year-old Felix Finkbeiner, from Germany, read Maathai’s story and founded Plant-for-the-Planet. By 2011, the year of Maathai’s death due to cancer, Plant-for-the-Planet had planted 1 million trees. They are now totalling over 13.6 billion trees.

By integrating democracy and human rights with environmentalism, Maathai left a legacy that reaches beyond the nurseries. When accepting her Nobel Prize, Maathai said, 'I always felt that our work was not simply about planting trees. It was about inspiring people to take charge of their environment, the system that governed them, their lives, and their future'.

Alice McDowell is a 2nd year PhD student in Biochemistry. Artwork by Charlotte Airey.