Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Kenyan environmental activist

Friday, December 10, 2004

OSLO — The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded today to Dr Wangari Maathai from Kenya. She is the first African woman to win the Peace prize, and the 12th woman to win the prize since its inception in 1901. The Nobel committee cited "her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace" as the reasons for awarding the prize. It is the first Peace prize awarded to an environmentalist.

Dr Maathai is a member of parliament in Kenya, the country's deputy environmental minister, and holds a Ph.D. in anatomy from the University of Nairobi. For seven years she was the director of the Red Cross in Kenya, and is most known for founding the Green Belt Movement — a non-governmental organization dedicated to environmental conservation and protecting forests. Since its founding in 1997, the organization claims to have planted over 30 million trees, in the process employing thousands of women — offering them empowerment, education and even family planning.

The GBM organises rural women in Kenya to participate in environmentally friendly activities such as reforestation; economically-conducive activities like eco-tourism and training in forestry and food processing; as well as community development.

On her Green Belt Movement project, Dr Maathai told the UNESCO Courier in 1999, "If you want to save the environment, you should protect the people first, because human beings are part of biological diversity. And if we can't protect our own species, what's the point of protecting tree species?"

In accepting the prize, Dr Maathai said that she was humbled by the recognition and uplifted by the honor of receiving the award, and discussed social and environmental problems that still challenge Africa and the rest of the world. The award includes a cash component of 10 million Swedish Kronor (approximately US$1.4 million).

Dr Maathai's project was opposed by the Kenyan government during Daniel arap Moi's rule, and Dr Maathai's demonstrations to protect the forests often met with violent resistance; eventually, she was jailed.

"The government thinks that by threatening me and bashing me they can silence me," Dr Maathai said. "But I have an elephant's skin and somebody must raise their voice."

In 1997 Dr Maathai ran for president on the Liberal Party of Kenya ticket. In 2002 — after Moi's Kenya African National Union party lost the presidential race — she was elected to Parliament, and was appointed deputy minister of environment for the new government the next year, a position she holds today.