RIO DE JANEIRO (JUNE 22) — The road is long and the battles many… For me it is a journey and I continue to pursue it wherever fate leads me…I learned to rise from the ashes of disappointment and look to the road yet ahead.” – Wangari Maathai

Women’s rights advocates at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development remember Wangari Maathai’s wise words as we have faced another uphill battle to not only retain commitments already made to women’s human rights but also ensure that governments do not roll back on their commitments.

Wangari Maathai, a leader for women, democracy, peace and environmental conservation passed away in late 2011, but her spirit lives on in many ways.  One of her famous sayings, “I will be a hummingbird, I will do the best I can,” is what a new generation of activists carries with them as they do the best they can to fight for the future they want to see – the future the world needs to see. The staff of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) was especially compelled to honor Wangari’s legacy here in Rio – 35 years after founding the Greenbelt Movement; 20+ years after she was a founding member of WEDO; 20 years after participating in the first Earth Summit in Rio; 8 years after Wangari not only made a stamp on Kenya and on Africa but on the world when she became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize; and a few years after being named the Good Will Ambassador of the Congo Forest Basin and a United Nations Messenger of Peace.

Wangari was an activist first and foremost, and we wanted to honor her legacy through mobilization and actions. A small group gathered at Sinal do Vale, the retreat center run by Thais Corral, a friend of Wangari and a founding board member of WEDO, in the mountains of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to stand in solidarity and plant a tree, something sacred to the movement Wangari Maathai led.  In recognition of her passing, Thais stated about Wangari “Her contribution was built to last.  It will last as we continue to believe that small actions, if done by millions of people, can make a difference.” And that it did.  From planting and teaching women to plant trees in Kenya, Wangari reached many milestones towards human rights, peace, democracy and environmental conservation.  Her perseverance led to the planting of over 40 million trees, a major success of the organization she founded in 1977, The Greenbelt Movement.

Wangari Maathai was no stranger to protests.  In fact, because of protests she led, she was beaten and jailed and even compelled to hide in confined spaces for weeks at a time from a government that did not approve of her actions.  And so we protested in her honor – with women from around the world.  Wearing t-shirts emblazoned with a hummingbird to inspire us each to keep doing the best we can to achieve women’s rights and gender equality wherever we are,  we marched down the main streets of Rio, stopping traffic on the main roads in an already highly congested city.  We protested inside the Rio Centro venue, in a courtyard outside of the negotiating hall to tell governments and the world that women’s rights are human rights, reproductive rights are human rights, governments cannot sell out women and the planet, and women will not be silenced.

Wangari’s many achievements never swayed her humble essence and the powerful simplicity of her messages, which resonated with everyone from the grassroots woman forester to prominent heads of states. In light of this, WEDO, in partnership with IUCN and the GGCA, honored several leaders in women’s rights in sustainable development, awarding them with a statuette in the shape of a hummingbird, symbolically recognizing their wide-reaching achievements as they are humbly doing the best they can.  Among the 6 awardees were two long-time WEDO partners and advocates for gender equality in climate change, Marie-Josee Artist of the Association of Indigenous Leaders (VIDS) in Suriname and Feri Lumampao of Approtech Asia in the Philippines.  Both women, as Wangari often did, modestly accepted the award on behalf of the many women they work with in their communities and vowed to share such an honor with them and to continue to persevere for women’s rights in their countries.  “Planting Hope”, a video from Wangari Maathai and the Greenbelt Movement’ ended the event with inspirational words from her:

“You cannot give up, you cannot put yourself at the mercy of [an] exploitative system. You must empower yourself, you must break the cycle. So, even by starting with such a simple step of just digging a hole and planting a tree it’s like you are planting hope in your life and for your descendants.”

Wangari Maathai’s legacy lives with on in us and with us; as she struggled, we struggle; and as she won many battles we will win many more.

See more photos from the activities listed above in the following slideshow!

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