Wangari Maathai: Environment

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Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai, © 2000 Eddie Adams


  • 6 – 8


  • Environmental Rights

Additional Resources


  • Article 20: Right of Peaceful Assembly and Association
  • Article 27: Right to Participate in the Cultural Life of the Community


  • What are the goals and purpose of the Green Belt Movement?
  • How is Wangari Maathai a courageous person?
  • How does deforestation affect my life and the lives of all human beings?


  • 80 minutes (2 class periods)


After this lesson, students will be able to

  • Relate the concepts of deforestation to their own lives.
  • Evaluate and apply vocabulary words to facilitate generalization and comprehension of Wangari Maathai’s human rights work.
  • Collect data, facts, and ideas on the environmental issue of global warming and the empowerment of women.
  • Develop and synthesize information with supporting materials to create an original letter or film.
  • Produce an original film or letter focused on the concepts of deforestation and its negative global impact.
  • Listen, speak, and advocate about the environmental work implemented by Wangari Maathai.


  • Identify a variety of sources of information
  • Evaluate data
  • Draw inferences
  • Use higher level thinking skills of comprehension, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation
  • Participate in group planning and discussion


  • Social Studies Standard 2: World History
    • Intermediate KI 1 PI 1, 2; KI 3 PI 1, 2, 3; KI 4 PI 1, 2, 3, 4
  • Social Studies Standard 3: Geography
    • Intermediate KI 1 PI 2, 3, 4; KI 2 PI 1, 2, 3, 4
  • Social Studies Standard 4: Economics
    • Intermediate KI 1 PI 1, 2, 3; KI 2 PI 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
  • Social Studies Standard 5 Civics, Citizenship, and Government
    • Intermediate KI 1 PI 1, 3; KI 3 PI 1; KI 4 PI 1, 2, 3
  • English Language Arts Standard 1: Language for Information and Understanding
    • Intermediate Reading PI 1, 2, 3; Writing PI 1, 2, 3, 4
  • English Language Arts Standard 3: Language for Critical Analysis and Evaluation
    • Intermediate Reading PI 1, 3, 4; Writing PI 1, 2
  • English Language Arts Standard 4: Language for Social Interaction
    • Intermediate Listening/Speaking PI 1, 2; Reading/Writing PI 2, 3
  • Mathematics, Science, and Technology Standard 4: Science
    • Intermediate Physical Setting KI 2 PI 1
    • Intermediate Living Environment KI 5 PI 1; KI 6 PI 2: KI 7 PI 1, 2

NYS P-12 COMMON CORE LEARNING STANDARDS for ELA/Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12

  • RH/SS.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies. (RH/SS.6-8.4)
  • RH/SS.6-8.7 Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.
  • WH/SS.6-8.9 Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis reflection, and research.


  • Deforestation
  • Advocate
  • Environmentalist
  • Soil erosion
  • Incentive
  • Exemplary
  • Denounce
  • Proposal
  • Erect
  • Curtail
  • Criticism
  • Detained
  • Compassion
  • Clarity
  • Courage
  • Destiny
  • Interrogated
  • Forego
  • Reform degradation
  • Malnutrition
  • Impoverished
  • Capital
  • Empower
  • Destiny
  • Infrastructure
  • Arrogant
  • Conviction
  • Rural


  • Courage
  • Fear
  • Perseverance
  • Empowerment
  • Empathy
  • Physical systems
  • Human systems
  • Environment and society
  • Justice
  • Civic values
  • Human rights


  • Computer with Internet connection
  • CD player and CD/or Internet connection to a music link


Student Activities


Distribute to the students the lyrics to the song “Paper and Ink” by Tracy Chapman. Have students listen to the song while they follow along with the lyrics. (symbol for link)

After listening to the song, conduct a classroom discussion using the following questions:

  • How many sheets of paper do you think you use in one day?
  • How many sheets of paper do you think your school uses in one day?
  • In one week? A year?
  • Who owns the sun?
  • Who owns the sea?


Have students listen to a speech and read along by Kerry Kennedy at Cooper Union with regard to the right of access for all throughout history, and how environmental exploitation is directly linked to human rights violations.

Kerry Kennedy

There is a direct correlation between democracy, respect for human rights and respect for the environment. And where people are voiceless, democracy fails, corruption runs rampant, rights are systemically abrogated, and the environment is destroyed…

It is no coincidence that, in the United States the poorest communities, with the least political clout, are consistently those which suffer the largest burden of environmental devastation.” –Kerry Kennedy

  • Transcript of Kerry Kennedy’s speech at Cooper Union:
  • Students watch the video clip on deforestation
  • “Long Hi Rez: Saving Our Rainforests-The Lungs of Our Planet,” with Harrison Ford:
  • Instruct the students to respond to the video while watching by writing reactions to what they see.
  • Students share responses in a group discussion


  • Working in teams of three, students divide words and find definitions. Students share as a class.


  • Students read the interview of Wangari Maathai and answer the following discussion questions. (symbol for link to Speak Truth to Power)
  • Questions
    • What was the name of the movement Maathai created and what was its purpose?
    • For how many people did the planting of a billion trees produce income?
    • Explain the sequence of events that happened when Maathai denounced President Daniel arap Moi’s proposal to build a 62-story skyscraper in the middle of Nairobi’s largest park.
    • What was the end result of her perseverance in regard to speaking out and taking action?
    • What were the initial needs resulting from environmental degradation that women spoke about in 1977?
    • Compare and contrast how women describe their environmental situation in the past to their environmental situation today.
    • Why did the women initially believe they would not be able to plant trees?
    • How did planting trees empower women?
    • How and why were women an important factor in the Green Belt Movement?
    • Why did the forester laugh about the number of trees they wanted to plant?
    • Why did the forester withdraw his offer of unlimited seedlings?
    • Explain why Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement did not need the foresters’ seedlings anymore.
    • Explain the goals and purpose of the Green Belt Movement.
    • Explain how Wangari Maathai was a courageous person.
    • Interpret Maathai’s quote when she states, “Fear is the biggest enemy you have.”
  • Students share answers in a class discussion and then watch a video entitled “Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement”
  • Students discuss answers to questions and the video.

Become a Defender

  • Students will watch the video clip entitled “Wangari Maathai talks about the Mottainai Campaign.” Mottainai is a Japanese word for reduce, reuse, recycle. This campaign is one started by Wangari Maathai to reduce the millions of thin plastic bags contributing to the degradation of our society.:
  • Students will create PSA (Public Service Announcements) to raise awareness in their own communities about using reusable bags.
  • Students will take action to raise awareness of the Mottainai Campaign in their own neighborhood by writing letters and taking them to supermarkets and other stores that use plastic bags and requesting the store sell reusable bags and offer incentives to use them. (Whole Foods give 10 cents per reusable bag back to the consumer.)
  • Students will either write a persuasive letter or create a short film to send to their Senator to ask them to join the global climate task force of governors and R.E.D.D. (Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), to include forests in their Climate Agreement, and to show how the degradation of forests affects all human beings.
  • Students will participate in the Billion Trees Campaign and plant a tree in their community.
  • Students create a visual interpretation of the Billion Trees Campaign to display in their school
  • Students create a poem about deforestation and its negative impact on humanity (while personifying the Earth as having lungs) then create a visual interpretation to connect to the poem.
  • Become a volunteer in International Coastal Cleanup Day in your own neighborhood! This is the only documented cleanup in the world!
  • Interview your local recycle truck driver to find out more information on where the plastic bags end up.


The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights is sponsoring an annual contest honoring a student who submits the best advocacy activity based upon the lesson studied. A goal of the lesson is to instill into each student that one voice, one person can make monumental changes in the lives of many. Tell us how you “Became a Defender”!


  • A one-page summary of the advocacy activity
  • Digitized copies of materials that can be sent electronically
  • Photos of the activity (please include parental consent form)
  • A one-page summary of how the activity made a change in the lives of one person or many


  • A week long “virtual” internship at RFK Center
  • An opportunity to meet the defender through a SKYPE visit,
  • A visit from Kerry Kennedy or a defender to your school
  • A poster of a Speak Truth to Power Human Rights Defender
  • A donation of a signed copy of Speak Truth to Power for the school library

The application and instructions for entry can be downloaded here (link for materials)

The deadline for all applications is the third week in November.

The winning student and teacher will be notified by the last week of January.

Additional Resources

Baskets of Africa
Baskets of Africa represents African basket weavers throughout the continent. They serve as a means of communication between customers and the weavers who hand-weave the baskets to ensure the weavers are fairly compensated and to help weavers, especially women, achieve financial success and independence.

The Green Belt Movement
The Green Belt Movement is a Kenya-based women’s civil society organization dedicated to human rights, good governance and peaceful democratic change through environmental protection. This organization works to preserve and restore the biodiversity of Africa while also planting over 40 million trees in an effort to prevent soil erosion. Through all of these actions, the Green Belt Movement has also empowered hundreds of thousands of women and their families to stand up for their rights.

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