For her relentless courage and for never forgetting our innate connection with nature.
A list of Wangari’s many achievements—most prominently, founding The Green Belt Movement which has planted over 51 million trees—could make what a single person can achieve during their time on earth seem easy, but for Wangari it was the absolute opposite of easy. She faced prejudice, personal sacrifices, corruption, threats of violence, actual violence and arrests many, many times. Her ability to keep going, find new solutions and start over again and again, must have taken vast stores of courage. And this is what you felt when you heard her speak, when you were in the same room as her: you believed that she was indefatigable, that she would never be too afraid or too intimidated by a problem to give up.
Perhaps such courage only comes from a deep well of belief in a purpose. Wangari talked about the lifelong influence of working in the fields as a child, a kinship with the soil, and her intention to instill in people more, not less, respect for the land.
I believe that this gave Wangari conviction in her beliefs and the courage to remain in pursuit of her purpose, even when it felt close to impossible. This is the kind of leadership that inspires me, that has inspired countless others, and leaves legacies like Nairobi’s thousand-hectare Karura Forest. This is the kind of leadership I believe is necessary to tackle our climate crisis today.
Wangari Maathai was the founder of the Green Belt Movement and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. Find out more: Wangari Maathai Foundation.
Inger Andersen is the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme UNEP. Follow UNEP at the United Nations Climate Action Summit here.