In the end, it was not about the trees. Wangari Maathai’s three-decade crusade began with teaching Kenyan women how to plant. But it grew into much more than a reforestation project.
Her Green Belt Movement, which promoted grass-roots activism, started as a way to reclaim the land. Women in the rural African community where she grew up said that they had to walk great distances for firewood, and that the soil was unfit for cultivation. Ms. Maathai told them to plant trees.
The plantings became the focal point of discussions about struggles under Kenyan dictator Daniel arap Moi. Women began to organize on behalf of equality, against poverty, and in opposition to government corruption.
Ms. Maathai’s bid to save the land blossomed into a movement dedicated to human rights, gender equality, and democracy.
In 2004, Ms. Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for cultivating a brand of environmentalism among poor women that burst forth in a better way of life.
She died this week in Nairobi, after a struggle with cancer, at the age of 71. It is said that Ms. Maathai was behind the planting of 30 million trees. There is no way to tell how many lives she transformed along the way.