Environmental Activist Maathai of Kenya Wins Peace Prize

OSLO, Norway, October 8, 2004 (ENS) - The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to Professor Wangari Maathai for her "contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace," the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced today. She becomes the first female African to win the prestigious prize.

Founder of the Green Belt Movement which has planted more than 30 million trees across Africa, Maathai now serves as assistant minister of environment, natural resources and wildlife in the government of President Mwai Kibaki.

"I am very delighted and I thank God for everything," Maathai told reporters. "I will carry on with my campaign and I ask Kenyans to join me.

"Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment," the Nobel Committee said. "Maathai stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa. She has taken a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women's rights in particular. She thinks globally and acts locally."


Wangari Maathai at Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies where she taught in 2002. (Photo courtesy Yale)
Klaus Toepfer, executive director of UNEP, which is headquartered in Nairobi, seat of the Kenyan government, said, "Understanding is growing throughout the world of the close links between environmental protection and global security, so it is most fitting that the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded this year to Africa's staunchest defender of the environment."

"This award marks the culmination of a lifelong and passionate fight for the environment," said Toepfer.

Maathai is the first woman from Africa to be honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, and Toepfer said she is an inspiration especially to "the women and children of Africa, who shoulder so much of Africa's burden of poverty, conflict and environmental degradation, and who so much deserve role models to show them the way to a better future."

The Nobel Committee said Maathai has "served as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights and has especially encouraged women to better their situation."

The committee praised her courageous stand against the former oppressive regime in Kenya, saying that, "Her unique forms of action have contributed to drawing attention to political oppression - nationally and internationally."

Maathai combines science, social commitment and active politics, the committee said. "More than simply protecting the existing environment, her strategy is to secure and strengthen the very basis for ecologically sustainable development."

Starting with a small tree nursery in her back yard in 1977, Maathai founded Kenya's Green Belt Movement. For nearly 30 years, she has mobilized poor women to plant millions of trees, and other countries have now adopted her methods.

"We are all witness," the Nobel Committee said, "to how deforestation and forest loss have led to desertification in Africa and threatened many other regions of the world - in Europe too. Protecting forests against desertification is a vital factor in the struggle to strengthen the living environment of our common Earth."

"Through education, family planning, nutrition and the fight against corruption, the Green Belt Movement has paved the way for development at grassroot level," the Nobel Committee said. "We believe that Maathai is a strong voice speaking for the best forces in Africa to promote peace and good living conditions on that continent."

Maathai will add the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize to the many other prizes she has received over the years, including the Goldman Environment Prize and the Sophie Prize, which came in March 2004 "for her fearless fight for the protection of the environment, human rights and promotion of democratic governance in Kenya."


Wangari Maathai at the 2003 UNEP Governing Council meeting (Photo courtesy UNEP)
Maathai is also a long-standing jury member of the UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize.

Born in Nyeri, Kenya, Maathai earned her undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences at Mount St. Scholastica College, Kansas, in 1964, and took her master's in Biological Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh two years later.

Then Maathai went home to Kenya and earned her PhD in anatomy at the University of Nairobi in 1971, becoming the first East and Central African woman ever to earn a PhD.

From 1973 to 1980 she served as director of the Kenya Red Cross.

In 1976, Maathai became the first female to serve as chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at University of Nairobi, and the following year she became the first female associate professor of that department.

In 1977 she founded The Green Belt Movement, and then served as chairman of the National Council of Women of Kenya from 1981 through 1987.

She ran for the Presidency of Kenya in 1997, but lost to long time holder of that post Daniel Arap Moi.

In 1998, Maathai launched the Kenya Jubilee 2000 coalition.

In 2002, she won elected office for the first time when she swept the Tetu Constituency with 98 percent of the vote and took her seat in Parliament.

In 2003 Maathai was appointed to the position of assistant minister of environment, natural resources and wildlife. "I am an activist in office, this is who I am," she told a reporter in 2003. "Nevertheless, I am happy that after a long struggle I do not have to lobby and appeal to the government to take action. I am in the government. This is a huge responsibility, but it is also such a joy to be able to put what I have been appealing for into action."

In a recent interview for a UNEP documentary, Maathai said, "I love the trees, I love the color. To me they represent life, and they represent hope. I think it is the green color. I tell people I think heaven is green."

Maathai will receive the Nobel Peace Prize, which consists of a gold medal, a diploma and check worth $1.3 million dollars, at a ceremony in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, on December 10, the anniversary of the death of the prize's creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, in 1896.

See Wangari Maathai's book, "The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience," online at: http://www.lanternbooks.com/detail.asp?id=159056040X