Yesterday, the world lost another hero — Wangari Maathai. There has been a lot written about all the wonderful things that Wangari accomplished during her life — and her work was recognized by the world when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.  But did she know about all of the people around the world who she inspired, even though they never met her? How many people are there who, like me, watched Wangari from afar, realizing just how much one person can do with their lives?

Prof. Wangari Maathai's Portrait Credit: Martin Rowe

When I first started working with ELAW in 1993, I was blessed with the opportunity to spearhead our work with partners in Africa.  I held a secret hope that I might one day meet Wangari Maathai.  At the time, Wangari had just received the Goldman Prize for her successful efforts to protect Nairobi’s most important green space – Uhuru Park. A year after I started working at ELAW, we heard Wangari was suing the city of Nairobi and others to stop the sale of land that was used as part of the public market. We reached out to Wangari and sent her cases to support her legal arguments. She lost the case, but I had the chance to exchange faxes with Wangari. As I continued working with ELAW, I started meeting so many people who, like Wangari, were fighting for a better world.

Jen with Maurice Odhiambo Makoloo, one of the founders of ILEG (center) and another hero who passed away too early, Vincent Shauri of the Lawyers' Environmental Action Team in Tanzania

While I sit here nearly 20 years after I first sent a fax to Wangari, I’m sad that we’ve lost such a passionate advocate for environmental and human rights. However, I can see that her commitment to equity and justice is being carried forward by many others. The Green Belt Movement  that she founded has grown into a major international organization and will continue to empower communities and achieve conservation. In Wangari’s own Kenya, her work will be carried on by other strong advocates such as our friends at the Institute for Law and Environmental Governance (ILEG)  and the Resource Conflict Institute (RECONCILE).

Let’s take time to remember Wangari Maathai and appreciate all she has done for us – and thank her for inspiring so many people around the world, including those of us at ELAW, to stand up for environmental justice and human rights.

Jen Gleason
ELAW Staff Attorney