Editor’s Note: Since the September 25 passing of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, there have been many memorials honoring her lifetime of activism on behalf of human rights and the environment. This post shares remarks by Duncan Marsh, The Nature Conservancy’s Director of International Climate Policy, at a Dec. 4, 2011 memorial service for Wangari Maathai held in Durban, South Africa during the United Nations climate change conference.
Tonight, and in coming days in some areas (check local listings by zip code), many PBS stations are airing an encore presentation of “Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai,” a film tracing her story, on the program Independent Lens.
Remarks by Duncan Marsh of The Nature Conservancy at the Wangari Maathai Memorial Service; December 4, 2011; Howard College, Kwa-Zulu Natal University, Durban, South Africa
Wangari Maathai’s smile lit up every room I was ever in with her.
And it is a distinct honor to pay tribute to Professor Maathai, especially on her home continent of Africa.
Since the beginning of the The Nature Conservancy Africa Region program, the Green Belt Movement has been our supporter and partner. We shared a building together at the Green Belt Movement’s U.S. headquarters near Washington, D.C., also our headquarters.
Through our partnership with the Green Belt Movement on work at the local level in Kenya and in advocacy globally, many of us at The Nature Conservancy knew Professor Maathai. She was warm, affectionate and engaging; an inspiration to so many, yet still always so humble and down-to-earth. She was genuine in every sense of the word.
We remember her as a champion for the environment, women’s empowerment, democracy and sustainable development. But her real legacy was that she saw these issues as intertwined.
Wangari, more than any person I have known, saw the need for action, the call for social change, the demand for assertive human leadership to improve things in people’s lives.
To quote Chris Tuite, former director of the Green Belt Movement in the U.S.: “People do not win Nobel Peace Prizes for planting trees.”
She won it for drawing the connection between civil rights, the health of our natural environment, and people’s livelihoods and ability to fulfill their human potential. She won it for empowering women and communities.
She won it for her remarkable ability to move from the village to the highest levels of international governance, and inspire people in both.
Unusual among many leaders, it was not her words that inspired most – although her words could be very inspiring – but her actions, her courage that grew in the face of unrelenting persecution and pressure. And ultimately, her humility – after so much adulation she received in the last decade, she remained always humble. Whenever I was with her, she made me feel special, like we were on the same level.
I had the honor of attending the memorial service to Professor Maathai in Washington, D.C. just three weeks ago. Speaking there were many of those in the U.S. who had known her longest and best since she first came to the U.S. as a young college student. She of course came to the US on the “Kennedy airlift,” the program championed by former President Kennedy when he was still a senator that brought talented young Africans to America for an education, in hopes that they could return and better their own countries. This was the same program that brought the father of current U.S. President Barack Obama to the U.S. Nevertheless, one speaker at the service said, “We never got our money’s worth more than we did with Wangari.”
And another speaker told the story of Wangari, upon winning the Nobel Peace Prize, the ceremony that we just watched on video, saying these remarkable words: “This is your award – take as much of it as you need.” She was again encouraging us to continue our work.
I know Wangari planned on attending Durban and was to make remarks about climate action and protecting forests for Africans and vulnerable communities everywhere.
In a way, Wangari’s struggle was not, is not, unlike that which we face with climate change today. It is natural for people to resist change, even in the light of clear factual evidence that change is in society’s interest. That is what we see in climate change, the issue that brings the world together here in Durban. There is resistance to change, and this resistance must be overcome with facts, with science, with economic analysis – but perhaps more important, it must be overcome by acting, by shedding our fears and committing to working together to simply show how it can be done. How we can develop smartly to create a better, cleaner, safer, and more equitable world.
This requires courage and faith and leadership, and nobody ever demonstrated those more completely than Wangari Maathai.
Duncan Marsh is the Conservancy’s International Climate Policy Director.
Photo by Mark Godfrey/TNC (Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize and founder of the Green Belt Movement, photographed during a visit to The Nature Conservancy’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.)
Photo 2 by Anand Mishra/TNC (Kristen Patterson of The Nature Conservancy’s Africa Program (foreground) works with the Tumutumu group, part of the Green Belt Movement, on forest restoration in the Mount Kenya region, Kenya.)
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