September 26, 2011 – New York 

“I just have something inside me that tells me that there is a problem, and I have got to do something about it.”- Wangari Maathai 

Today, WEDO mourns the loss but celebrates the life of our great friend, visionary, sister and ally, Professor Wangari Maathai, who passed away last night in Nairobi at the age of 71.  

“WEDO is greatly saddened by the passing away of Wangari Maathai, and our heartfelt condolences go out to her family. We’ve known her as a co-founder of WEDO, but also as a friend and a teacher to all those who came to WEDO after her. Her actions and courage will live on in all of our hearts to be passed on to future generations who will carry on her work.” – Monique Essed Fernandes, Chair, WEDO Board of Directors  


WEDO Staff, Friends and Colleagues Remember Wangari 

Countless emails and calls have come in today from staff, Board and partners – past, present and future – remembering and celebrating ‘Mama’ Wangari. Her passing is a reminder of the tremendous community she helped to start and the vision for a sustainable planet, which we remain dedicated to realizing. As a mentor, she inspired us; as a leader and teacher, she demonstrated that change is possible. 

Her leadership, brilliance, devotion and passion will live on in a powerful legacy for the environmental and women’s movements, for the world, and for future generations. For those of us lucky enough to know her – even a little bit, even for mere moments – she will continue to guide our activism, fuel our determination, and inspire us to achieve more. She changed so many lives, including mine, and I will miss her. 

  Cate Owren, WEDO Executive Director 

Wangari has put a fire of inspiration in all of us, local women, activists, academia, and policy makers. She was an example for many at national and certainly also at international level. Being one of WEDO’s co-founders, she has always been supportive to our work and efforts, and we have learned a lot from her. She has challenged existing institutions and policies, and inspired new ways of care for our Earth and for our societies. We express our warmest feelings of grief to her children and to her colleagues and friends. And our deep gratitude to Wangari for being with all of us, and with our Earth.  

Irene Dankelman, Former WEDO Board Chair 

Wangari was a founder of WEDO and supporter throughout her life time. She was an inspiration to me and countless women and men throughout the world. I had the privilege of going to Oslo when she received the Nobel Peace Prize. She used this honor to tirelessly bring her message of advancing world peace through sustainability, democracy and human rights, particularly women’s rights. We will all miss her courage, her optimism and her faith in humanity. 

June Zeitlin, Former WEDO Executive Director 

Wangari was such a great role model of the Best and Brightest worldwide women’s leaders! Now she has joined my mother Bella, one of WED0’s co-founders to guide the future of the planet from a higher plane. What an amazing woman she was!! Just think how privileged I am to have met her when she was only in her mid to late forties– as a young woman African leader/environmental scientist and activist who had nothing but enormous guts, intelligence, strength and dignity. Her work building the environmental movement and a sustainable environment has truly impacted not only Africa but the very future of our planet.  

Liz J. Abzug, Founder, Bella Abzug Leadership Institute 

I highly admired her. She was a source of inspiration, a dream of light with her presence. By founding the Green Belt Movement she has showed us that a very simple action as planting a tree can be very empowering for women. The GBM innovated as a democratic movement that combined social and environmental justice. 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.  

Thais Corral, WEDO Pioneer / Former WEDO Board Member 

I first heard of Wangari Maathai and learned of her work in 2004 after she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Seeing an African woman awarded this prize for working for peace, justice and democracy through environmental work gave me inspiration to keep on my path as I struggled with my own understanding of environmental justice and my identity in this movement. I joined WEDO four years later and I had the incredible opportunity to meet her in person, a moment that nearly brought me to tears. Today, I continue to keep these words from her autobiography close to my heart: ‘We do the right thing not to please people but because it’s the only logically reasonable thing to do, as long as we are honest with ourselves-even if we are the only ones.‘ She will be sorely missed. 

Rachel Harris, WEDO Advocacy Coordinator 

Wangari was an inspirational force for generations of women around the globe as she sought to create the change she wanted in the world with passion, courage and grace – no matter what the odds. Long before it was popular, I remember her showing us feminists at the NGO Forum in Nairobi in 1985 that solutions for survival of the planet often come from women’s local actions like that of the Greenbelt Movement she founded. Her insights into environment and sustainable development from the perspective of rural women in Africa made her at home with village activists or at UN World Conferences, personifying the idea that the local is global. She also managed to keep us laughing as well as learning along the journey. Her voice, vision, and vitality will be sorely missed in this world. 

Charlotte Bunch, Founding Director, Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Longtime Friend and Partner of WEDO 

So many of us will miss Wangari but how lucky we are that she was here in this world among us. She was such a beautiful spirit and always moved us to act with such clarity. In 1995 I was directing the Women’s Caucus at the World Summit for Social Development where heads of state were deliberating over key macroeconomic issues including how to handle developing country debt. When negotiations were in a deadlock, Wangari rose in the Caucus and humbly announced that she would start a hunger fast for debt cancellation. A number of women joined her and sat in silence in the middle of the conference lobby for several days as delegates rushed past them to and fro various meeting rooms. Within a few hours of this brave action many – including the head of the Summit, Ambassador Juan Somavia of Chile – took notice of this group of women led by Wangari and knelt by their side to sign a petition in support of their call. A decade later, after a few months of living with indigenous communities in the forests of South India, I spoke with Wangari about my frustrations with local power dynamics limiting the exercise of communities’ rights. She listened intently then flashed that radiant smile and told me to “stay in the forest” – an instruction I took to heart and that so enriched my life. 

Anita Nayar, Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), Former WEDO Associate Director 

Honoring Wangari 

How can we honor such an incredible leader? Former WEDO Board Member Jocelyn Dow said it best when she proposed, “Let us all plant a tree in the weeks to come so that her breath is everlasting.” Echoed by Anita Nayar, “Here’s to planting trees and having the courage to speak up about injustice and continue planting and making the links between ecologies, peace and women’s rights.” 

Below, please click to view a slideshow of some of the photos we have of Wangari in our WEDO library. The enduring theme in almost every photo: solidarity, activism, sisterhood, and laughter. 


This article will remain a ‘living article’ and we will continue to update quotes and photos as they are received from our WEDO friends and colleagues.  


About Wangari Maathai 

Winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai was the founder of the Green Belt Movement, a women-driven grassroots reforestation and sustainable development movement that has planted more than 40 million trees, its 3,000 tree nurseries managed by some 60,000 women and 1,500 men. Maathai was an elected member of Parliament and served as Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources in the Government of President Mwai Kibaki from 2003 to 2005. A biologist, Wangari was the first Kenyan woman to earn a PhD, to teach and chair a department at the University of Nairobi; an environmental and sociopolitical activist, her numerous awards include the Goldman Environmental Prize, the Africa Prize for Leadership and the UNEP/Eyes on the Environment Award. Maathai is a co-founder of The Nobel Women’s Initiative, whose goal is to support women’s rights around the world. Her autobiography, Unbowed: One Woman’s Story, was released in 2006.

join the movement

Women and girls around the world are demanding and creating systemic change and a sustainable future for all. We need collective power to attain a just future – we need you.