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Nobel laureate Wangari Muta Maathai, who sparked an environmental revolution 30 years ago in her native Kenya by organizing women to plant trees, preached empowerment and social activism to an overflow crowd in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum Friday afternoon. Social change begins at the grassroots, Maathai told the audience.
The only woman from Africa to ever receive the peace prize, Maathai, along with other Kenyan women, began planting trees in 1976 after discovering that the country’s scarce water supply was the result of unrestrained deforestation. The effort grew into the Green Belt Movement (GBM), a broad-based grassroots organization that, among its many initiatives, is responsible for planting some 30 million trees across Kenya. Now a member of Kenya’s parliament, Maathai is internationally recognized for her work in advancing democratic ideals, human rights and environmental conservation.
The Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work with the GBM, she said, was a challenge to us “as a human family that the time has come for us to see the issue of sustainable management of our resources, equitable distribution of these resources, and good governance and peace as issues which cannot be separated.”
What the committee was saying, she told the audience, is that “it is impossible for us to hope to live in peace together if we do not learn to manage our finite resources more responsibly and to deliberately work towards sharing them more equitably.”
For change to occur, individuals must reject poor and ineffective leadership, Maathai said. In Kenya, which for years was plagued with mismanagement, citizens finally recognized that “we as people are traveling in the wrong direction.” Today, she said, “we have succeeded in not only stopping the bus, but in becoming the driver ourselves.”