The answer came from her daughter, Wanjira Maathai:
When she started the Green Belt movement in 1977 very few people realised how radical it was. Rural women were disenfranchised. The simple act of planting trees challenged the status quo. Women had no land rights. [By planting trees], Wangari was challenging land grabbing and linking peace and democracy and the environment.
"I was deeply influenced by her. I came to the issue of climate change not as a scientist or environmentalist, but from a human rights and justice perspective. I realised that severe weather shocks were already undermining poor livelihoods in vulnerable countries, and were negatively affecting rights to food, safe water and health. I concluded that this posed one of the greatest human rights threats, had a huge injustice dimension, and needed to be highlighted by taking a climate justice approach. To me a climate justice approach had to be a values-led, people-centred approach, which highlighted the injustice of climate change but which had to be practical about solutions – as Wangari had been."
President Obama made his only contribution to the global climate talks in Durban in 2011 by urging countries to preserve their forests and follow the example of Nobel peace prize winner and Kenyan environmentalist, Wangari Maathai. He said "Wangari's work stands as a testament to the power of a single person's idea that the simple act of planting a tree can be a profound statement of dignity and hope first in one village, then in one nation, and now across Africa".
Archbishop Desmond Tutu praised Professor Maathai as a true "visionary African woman" and called her a "leading voice on the continent." He said:
"Professor Maathai introduced the idea of women planting trees in Kenya to reduce poverty and conserve the environment. At last count, the Green Belt Movement she helped to found had assisted women to plant more than 40 million trees. She understood and acted on the inextricable links between poverty, rights and environmental sustainability. One can but marvel at her foresight and the scope of her success. She was a true African heroine,"
Ann Pettifor especially remembered the privilege of working closely with Wangari on the Jubilee 2000 campaign. Earlier today she said:
“Wangaari stands shoulder to shoulder with Nelson Mandela and Julius Nyerere as one of Africa’s – and the world’s – wisest and most effective leaders. I was privileged to know her as a friend; and as a colleague. But above all I was privileged to work closely with her during the Jubilee 2000 campaign. Not only was she Jubilee 2000′s representative in Kenya, but she helped lead the Jubilee 2000 Africa campaign. May she rest in peace; and may her leadership of that and many other campaigns to protect Africa’s environment, grow in the world’s memory; just as the many trees she planted and helped propagate across Kenya – continue to grow and thrive. The finest memorial a world leader could leave as a legacy.”
“In remembrance of Wangari Maathai, #mylittlething is educating girls to become leaders in their families, in their communities and in our world.”