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Francesca de Gasparis

Francesca de Gasparis worked closely with Wangari Maathai (© Green Belt Movement)
Francesca de Gasparis worked closely with Wangari Maathai
© Green Belt Movement

The legacy of Wangari Maathai

As Europe Director of the Green Belt Movement, Francesca de Gasparis worked closely with Wangari Maathai particularly on issues of climate change and its impact on forests. After Professor Maathai's untimely death in late September 2011, Francesca gives her viewpoint on Wangari's lifelong commitment to forests and rural women and the legacy she has left behind.

Wangari Maathai is no longer with us but we've been left with a huge legacy. Her death was very sudden - we weren't expecting it. While we knew she hadn't been well for some time, we thought she'd be able to keep on fighting as she always did. I've learnt so much from working with her. In the last month, much of which was spent in Kenya for her state funeral and memorials, what struck me was the breadth of her achievements, how physically brave she was to stand up against the government which in the days of Arap Moi beat her up, threatened her and imprisoned her. She risked her life on many occasions to save the forests.

Wangari commonly used an analogy that a journey starts with a single step and that step for her was planting trees with rural women. It sounds deceptively simple, but it led the Green Belt Movement (GBM), along a path of social change, of democracy building and ultimately to the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. I believe it was Wangari's gift to see a complex issue and find a way to address the root cause in a way that brought everyone along with her. She had this incredible ability to stick it out, not to give up.

A humble but inspiring leader

Yet, Wangari was a very humble person. Even after the busiest day, she would have the utmost patience with people who wanted to ask the most basic questions. That said, she expected a lot from her staff; she had an immense amount of stamina. But that's why she inspired commitment from people, because she didn't have airs and graces; she would be as committed as anyone and work long hours and was incredibly passionate and focused about her work. As an eco-feminist, Wangari was an inspiring leader. She agreed with the feminist movement, but she saw things from an environmental perspective; by the time I knew her she saw herself first as an environmentalist and as an educator.

Being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was a great gift for her and for the Green Belt Movement but it was not a gift without its own cost. Wangari had grown up with nuns at school and she admired their commitment and values. Wangari saw herself as someone who was in service to the environment and to rural women. When she was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, she was undoubtedly surprised and said, "I didn't think anyone had been listening." She already had a great profile in environmental circles, but she did not think it was recognised beyond that. So the Nobel Peace Prize was another much bigger platform because her message was being heard so much more widely, and it involved a huge amount of work and travel. And out of that came the GBM office in London and an office in Washington DC, both there to help support her work in getting the message out.

The way forward without Wangari

Since her death many people have asked me how will we carry on her vision? She has amassed a great team, who are very, very committed to the issues, and we have a great international board. We had an excellent strategy meeting earlier this year when Wangari was still with us to progress the things that she'd already put in place and certainly you will continue to hear about GBM on the international stage as well as in Africa, in Kenya where we do so much of our work.

For example, we've just launched, in Wangari's memory, a campaign called "I am the hummingbird", a Kenya-wide and international tree-planting campaign. She was a great storyteller and she would tell this wonderful story of a tiny hummingbird that was in a forest fire which collected a little drop of water in its beak and go back and forth to the fire with these little tiny drops. And all the other bigger animals, the elephants and the lions and others, were standing there asking why it was wasting its energy; why not stand on the side where it was safe. The hummingbird replied, "I am doing the best I can." This was Wangari's message to us all, that we must always do the best we can and the hummingbird campaign is to encourage tree planting all over the world.

Undoubtedly, it is a big challenge to work on the issues that Wangari highlighted without her voice and wisdom to really transform them. But as a team, we all have different skills sets which we will bring to GBM's work and to her lasting memory. She had a great way of saying things with humour and really inspiring people with her stories. One of her favourite sayings was "If man can go to the moon, why can't we plant a tree?"

Date published: November 2011


Have your say

Wangari used to tell her poor rural women "You may not be a ... (posted by: Anne Pickstock)

Cesca, what a wonderful tribute to Wangari Maathai. May her... (posted by: annie chapman)

Cesca, what a wonderful tribute to Wangari Maathai. An amaz... (posted by: annie chapman)


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