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International Women's Month Highlight: Wangari Maathai

As we come to the end of International Women's Month, let's close with a woman whose commitment to the environment is very near and dear to us in the coffee business. Wangari Maathai was an award-winning environmental and political activist in her home country of Kenya, leading a movement which spread all throughout the African continent.

Born in 1940 in Nyeri, a rural area of Kenya, the young Wangari would grow up to have a prosperous educational career.

As a beneficiary of the Kennedy Airlift -- a program which brought hundreds of students from Kenya to study in the U.S. and Canada -- she obtained a bachelor's degree in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas in 1964.

She then went on to earn her Master of Science from the University of Pittsburgh in 1966.

After pursuing doctoral studies in Germany and Kenya, she earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Nairobi, where she also taught veterinary anatomy, in 1971, making her the first woman in eastern and central Africa to hold a doctorate degree.

She became chair of the university's department of veterinary anatomy in 1976 and an associate professor in 1977. She was the first woman to hold both of those positions.

She became active in the National Council of Women of Kenya in 1976 when she introduced the idea of community-based tree planting based on environmental concerns raised by rural Kenyan women. The idea grew into a grassroots organization, dubbed the Green Belt Movement, with the main focus of helping women groups plant trees to reduce poverty and protect the environment in Kenya.

The Green Belt Movement has helped women plant more than 20 million trees in their communities.

The organization established a Pan African Green Belt Movement in 1986, which has involved more than 40 African countries. Some of those countries successfully launched their own initiatives based on the Green Belt Movement, such as Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.

As an advocate for democracy and conservation, she appeared before the United Nations multiple times and spoke on behalf of women at special sessions of the U.N. General Assembly during the five-year review of the earth summit.

The Green Belt Movement faced opposition from the Kenyan government over  its environmental activism.

The government in the late '80s attempted to shut the movement down over its protest of the redevelopment of Uhuru Park in Nairobi, but the group's constant activism and media coverage eventually led foreign investors to abandon the project.

The U.N. secretary general in 2009 named Maathai a U.N. Messenger of Peace with a focus on the environment and climate change.

In 2010, she partnered with the University of Nairobi to found the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies, supplementing the Green Belt Movement approach with academic research in land use, agriculture and other environmental studies.

After battling ovarian cancer, she died on Sept. 25, 2011, at the age of 71.

Maathai received numerous awards throughout her life, including the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, the 2009 NAACP Chairman's Award and Time Magazine's 2005 100 Most Influential People in the World. 

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