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Wangari Maathai

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I would be remiss to not mention the death of the great African environmentalist, feminist, and activst Wangari Maathai. The Kenyan activist began her activist career by figuring out that paying women to plant trees would both provide employment for women and protect the land. She then went on to challenge the Kenyan state of Daniel arap Moi and travel the world spreading her rejection of high modernism in favor of grassroots movement that decentralized power away from the state and put it in the hands of the poor who had to survive on the land. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, she became one of the world’s most famous African activists, respected around the world.

What I think is most telling about Maathai’s life is how her Greenbelt movement so directly challenged the high-modernist state. Arap Moi called it subversive in the 80s because it challenged the ability of the central state to control the population and land for its own interests. Her urban activism took on similar concerns, including her opposition to destroying a Nairobi park in order to build a classically high-modernist skyscraper. She played a not insignificant role in mobilizing people around the world against these types of projects, to the point where, outside of China, classic high modernist projects are increasingly rare. And that they are so popular with the Chinese government is quite telling of why they appeal to the powerful.

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