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“The legacy of Nobel peace prize winner Wangari Maathai”
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“The legacy of Nobel peace prize winner Wangari Maathai”

Tributes have poured in for Kenyan environmentalist Professor Wangari Maathai who died last month. In turn her passing has helped to reignite the conservation agenda at home, writes Simon Hart, 27, a Commonwealth Correspondent from Britain living in Nairobi.

On 25 September, Kenya’s most famous and admirable heroine passed away. The death of Professor Wangari Maathai was mourned across Kenya and indeed the world.

Maathai won the 2004 Nobel peace prize for her environmental work and through Kenya was famously known for her uncompromising stand against President Moi. Notably, she saved Nairobi’s green Uhuru Park from urban expansion.

Maathai was renowned for inspiring the planting of 45 million trees in her life, and indeed millions of Kenyans have continued this tradition as a fitting tribute to her. With Professor Maathai’s death comes the chance to review the impact she has had on Kenya’s forests today.

The initial findings paint a negative picture. Between 1990 and 2003, 186,000 hectares of forest were converted to other uses, and Kenya remains one of the least forested nations in Sub-Saharan Africa, with only 3% of the country covered in forest land (United Nations Kenya Atlas 2009). Primarily responsible for this is the rapid deforestation that continues to grip Kenya, which has an over reliance on fire wood and charcoal for fuel wood amongst its’ growing population. After a recent visit to the forested regions of Mburu myself, I saw several people carrying firewood out of protected forest area in a short visit. The most forested areas of Kenya (including the Rift Valley) are suffering further strain from growing construction projects and urban expansion, and this trend shows no sign of discontinuing.

However, there are reasons to believe Maathai’s legacy and message has made an impact on the Kenyan psyche. Following Ecuador’s lead, Kenya has become the latest country to enshrine the protection of the environment in its constitution. The United Nations selected the village of Sauri in Kenya to be the first Millennium Development Village, which encouraged communities to work within their natural surroundings to develop sustainable growth, establishing tree nurseries and nurturing indigenous tree species.Kenya has also established more land for national parks and reserves as it continues to see the significance in promoting eco-tourism. Forested areas are now declining at a reduced rate compared to the rest of its neighbours.

The future of Kenya’s forests very much remains in the balance. But you can sense the perceived opportunity many environmentalists feel Professor Maathai’s death provides in reigniting the conservation agenda in Kenya, and maintaining the Green Belt movement she so dedicatedly established. With school children across Kenya planting trees in her name, crowds delaying her funeral procession as they struggled to find a place amongst the mourners, and with Uhuru Park remaining a green oasis in the middle of Nairobi, Professor Maathai’s conservation message continues to strike a message with Kenyans.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?

To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/

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