Wangari Maathai Wins Nobel Peace Prize

Washington Post
Sat, Oct. 09, 2004

Kenyan woman wins Nobel Peace Prize
By Fred Barbash and Emily Wax

Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan firebrand who mobilized the women of Africa in a powerful crusade against deforestation called the "Green Belt Movement," will receive the Nobel Peace Prize for 2004.

Friday's announcement, by the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee, makes her the first African woman to receive the $1.3 million prize, which is generally regarded as the world's highest tribute. It was the second straight year that a woman had won the peace prize. Last year, Shirin Ebadi, a lawyer in Iran, was recognized for her work promoting the rights of women and children.

Maathai, feminist, environmentalist and crusader against corruption in Kenya, is now her country's deputy environment minister.

Typically, the speculation about who would win this year's prize was all wrong, with most of it centering around immediate events, such as chaos in the Middle East and weapons of mass destruction. The "most mentioned" contender was Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Explaining the choice, Ole Danbolt Mjoes, head of the prize committee, said: "We have added a new dimension to the concept of peace. We have emphasized the environment, democracy building and human rights, and especially women's rights."

"I am absolutely overwhelmed," said Maathai, 64.

The award will be handed out in Oslo, Norway, on Dec. 10.

Among past laureates are Jimmy Carter, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, the Dalai Lama and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

While Maathai has not been widely known to the general public, she is a legend among global environmental activists and feminist leaders alike, and a presence at international environmental conferences. She has been described variously as an "ecofeminist," "ecowomanist" and "Kenya's Green Militant."

The impetus for Maathai's movement was deforestation in Kenya, a process that has taken 90 percent of the country's forest over the past 50 years. One of the consequences Maathai saw was that women and girls had to spend hours every day searching for wood for cooking fuel.

In 1978, Maathai, then a U.S.-educated college professor at the University of Nairobi, suggested the planting of trees as a way to help rural women survive the decrease of firewood. The movement spread across Africa, and was responsible for planting over 30 million trees. She expanded it to embrace human rights, women's rights and the politics of democracy.

In 1989, the deep-voiced and statuesque Maathai led a one-woman charge against the autocratic government of Daniel arap Moi, the former president, when he wanted to build a skyscraper and six-story statue of himself in gritty Nairobi's only public green space.

She lost her case in court. But because of her protest no financiers were willing to work on the project. Today, that area of the park is called "Freedom Corner."

From time to time she has been intimidated and even beaten by police in the course of her protests. She was hospitalized in Kenya in 1999 after being clubbed by guards hired by developers while she and her followers tried to plant trees in Karura forest.

In 1992, she was among a group of women who stripped naked in Nairobi to protest police torture. The police had beaten them to disperse their demonstration and, as she later said, the women "resorted to something they knew traditionally would act on the men. . . . They stripped to show their nakedness to their sons. It is a curse to see your mother naked."

"She was threatened physically and was called a busybody in the press, yet she didn't flinch," said Mwalimu Mati, deputy director of Transparency International, a watchdog group in Nairobi. "She's converted a lot of us to understand why the environment is so important. She worked along for a very long time and she deserves this recognition. Now she has the real moral authority to challenge people who are selfishly allocating themselves land."

In its citation Friday, the Nobel committee said: "Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment. 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."

Maathai earned a degree in biological sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kan., in 1964. She received a master's degree two years later from the University of Pittsburgh and a doctorate from the University of Nairobi in 1971.

She was the first woman in east and central Africa to earn a doctorate degree and the first to become a professor at a major university.

"I have had the fortune of breaking a lot of records," Maathai said in a 1992 Washington Post interview. "First woman this. First woman that. And I think that created a lot of jealousy without me realizing. Sometimes we don't quite realize that not everybody's clapping when we're succeeding."


Wangari Maathai