Remembering activist Wangari Maathai through film

It’s been a tough couple of months for heroes of the environmental and sustainability movements. Sustainable business pioneer Ray Anderson passed away from cancer in August, and now Wangari Maathai, Kenyan Nobel peace prize laureate and founder of the Green Belt Movement has also lost her own battle with the disease. Described as “a force of nature” by the executive director of the United Nations’ environmental program, Maathai recognized connections between environmental degradation, poverty and women’s rights in her home country, and she aimed to address all of these issues through one of the simplest of acts: planting trees.

Her legacy, no doubt, will be the 30 million trees her organization has planted across Africa, as well as the hundreds of thousands of women given an economic hand by her efforts. Maathai’s work also captured the imagination of storytellers around the globe, a number of whom included her in documentary films on topics related to her work.

Most recently, Maathai appeared in DIRT! THE MOVIE, a selection for the 2009 Sundance Film Festival Documentary Competition. Her telling of the hummingbird story (in the clip above) certainly symbolizes her own work as both an environmentalist and political activist, as well as the role she encouraged the poor and disenfranchised around the world to take. She also appeared in works ranging from the French NOUS RESTERONS SUR TERRE to NOBELITY to the epic climate change documentary THE 11TH HOUR.

Maathai’s own story is certainly film-worthy, and PBS took notice with its Independent Lens documentary TAKING ROOT: THE VISION OF WANGARI MAATHAI. I have no doubt that with the worldwide reflection on her life occurring right now, other documentary makers will see a story worth telling.

If you’re new to Maathai’s story, she was an inspiring figure. There’s no better time than the present to learn more about her contributions to her own country, and the movement for global environmental restoration and economic empowerment. If you know her story, or spent time with/around her, we’d love to hear your reflections on this remarkable woman.