Kenyan environmentalist wins Nobel Peace Prize

Maathai has sought rights for women, fought corruption

October 09, 2004|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Kenyan environmentalist and human rights activist Wangari Maathai, who has worked for nearly 30 years combating deforestation, stamping out corruption and empowering women in Africa, won the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday.

Mobilizing thousands of women to plant 30 million trees on farms and public lands and in forests across Kenya, Maathai staved off the ruin of her country's fragile landscape while providing desperately needed jobs for the poor.

Maathai, the first African woman to win the Peace Prize, was praised by the awarding committee as "a strong voice speaking for the best forces in Africa to promote peace and good living conditions on that continent."

"She represents an example and a source of inspiration for everyone in Africa fighting for sustainable development, democracy and peace," the committee said in its citation.

Maathai, Kenya's deputy environment minister, was not considered a top contender for the prize, which this year had a record 194 nominations. Many observers had expected the committee to use the prize to send a message about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction by awarding it to Director General Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Instead the committee surprised nearly everyone, including Maathai, by focusing on environmental and women's issues that rarely make headlines.

"This is extremely encouraging to the people of Africa and the African woman," Maathai, who will collect her $1.3 million award Dec. 10 in Stockholm, Sweden, told the BBC yesterday. "It is a recognition of the many efforts of African women, who continue to struggle despite all the problems they face."

On a continent where women shoulder the burdens of work and child care but often share few of the rights men have, Maathai shook up Kenya's male-dominated society by continually challenging the limits placed on women.

Born in a village near Mount Kenya in April 1940, Maathai trained as a veterinarian in the United States, Europe and Kenya, becoming the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate.

She returned to Kenya to teach anatomy and serve as chairwoman of the veterinary department at the University of Nairobi, also both firsts for a woman.

Founded movement

Alarmed by the increasing deforestation of Kenya that resulted from rampant development and firewood collection by villagers, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, a nationwide tree-planting campaign to conserve Kenya's biodiversity and prevent soil erosion, in 1977.

Seedling by seedling, members of the Green Belt Movement reshaped the countryside, spreading a gospel that more trees would mean cleaner living and greater prosperity.

Her movement, which has spread to other African nations, often clashed with government's flagrant disregard for the environment, as it did in 1989 when President Daniel arap Moi, then the iron-fisted ruler of Kenya, unveiled plans to erect a 62-story office tower and a six-story statue of himself in Uhuru Park, the largest green space in Nairobi. Despite being vilified by Moi, Maathai stood firm, and the project was abandoned.

Her activism soon reached beyond the environment into politics. Protesting for the release of political prisoners jailed for demanding a multiparty democracy in Kenya, Maathai led 50 women in a hunger strike in March 1992 in a Nairobi park before police tear-gassed and beat them to end the strike, clubbing Maathai unconscious.

The hunger strike caught the imagination of many Kenyans frustrated with their government, including Helen Gichohi, now vice president of the African Wildlife Foundation in Nairobi. Gichohi recalled going to the park during the hunger strike to visit Maathai and bring her water to drink.

`One of a kind'

"We were so impressed by what they were doing," said Gichohi. "She's a gentle person who has just the ability to focus and the will to succeed. She's one of a kind."

Maathai's headstrong nature did not always win her fans among Kenyans, some who view her as an annoyance.

"There are those who very much admire her and look up to her. But it is unusual for a woman here to be very outspoken. She is seen as a threat to male domination. Even among women she is considered too outspoken," said Machasia Gaitho, a political columnist for the Daily Nation in Nairobi.

Such detractors never discouraged Maathai. "She is a very strong leader and not afraid to go against the grain," Gaitho said. Unlike renowned Kenyan conservationist Richard Leakey, she won acclaim for building her environmental movement from the grass-roots level, not relying on the government.

"You will find her out there with the women planting threes. She's as comfortable there as she is with the politicians," Gichohi said. "She would go down to the people and talk, asking them, `How do we make a difference?'"

Together, Maathai and thousands of Kenyans found many valuable ways to answer that question. Her Green Belt Movement expanded to include voter education, seminars on environmental justice, poverty alleviation and HIV/AIDS education.

Her methods for preserving the environment have been adopted by other countries facing similar challenges. In 2002, after years of standing up to Kenya's government, Maathai joined it. She was elected to Parliament with 98 percent of the vote as part of an opposition coalition that swept to power after Moi stepped down after 24 years as president.

Working in the government has not proved as successful for Maathai as opposing it was. This week, when Maathai clashed with her constituents over government plans to allow farming in indigenous forests, she threatened to resign.

"I'd rather not be in Parliament than allow people to destroy forests," she said this week. "What I am doing is to blow the whistle. I am a watchman, and people need to heed my warning."

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