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Kenyan Environmentalist Awarded Peace Prize

The Nobel panel honors Wangari Maathai for her push to fight poverty by protecting forests.

October 09, 2004|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The joyful music of ululating African women rang through the offices of Kenya's Green Belt Movement on Friday after its founder, Wangari Muta Maathai, became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Dancing and celebrating, the movement's administrator, Nancy Muthiani, said the award was a message to African women to never give up. "We are screaming, we are singing, we are dancing. Everybody is overwhelmed," she said.

Maathai, a 64-year-old Kenyan environmental activist, also is a member of Kenya's parliament and deputy environment minister.

Her mostly female Green Belt Movement has planted about 30 million trees to halt deforestation in parts of Africa. The campaign has created thousands of jobs while providing a sustainable source of firewood for families.

It is the first time since the prize was established in 1901 that it has been awarded for efforts to protect the environment. "Peace on Earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment," the committee said.

"I think it's a wonderful recognition," Maathai said by telephone from Nairobi. "It's a very important message to the women of Africa because it's recognition of their struggle and recognition of their resilience and perseverance despite all the difficulties that they face."

Describing the reaction of her supporters, she said, "They have been very encouraging and very proud and feeling very good and feeling that they too have been sharing this prize. They understand how important and famous this prize is."

Last year's Peace Prize also was awarded to a woman -- Iranian human rights activist and lawyer Shirin Ebadi.

Maathai was an outspoken critic of the corrupt Kenyan regime of Daniel Arap Moi and often was in trouble with the authorities.

She campaigned on issues such as poverty, malnutrition, corruption, women's low economic status and the lack of media freedom in Kenya under the former regime. She also has criticized the negative images of Africa in the Western media and the reluctance of rich countries to relieve Africa's debt.

Maathai has notched up many milestones for African women and been awarded numerous prizes. She reportedly was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate.

Selected from a record list of 194 nominees, a stunned Maathai said she had no idea she had a chance of winning the prize until journalists called her a few hours before the announcement. She was driving to her parliamentary district when she heard the news, but continued with the day's task of handing out ID cards to young people before returning to Nairobi, the capital.

"What we do in the environmental movement is that in trying to protect the environment we are preventing conflict, because many of the wars that we know are over natural resources," she said. "This is a way of ensuring that if the natural resources are sustainably maintained, there will be less conflict."

The award, created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel as a bequest in his will, carries a prize of about $1.3 million.

Maathai studied in Kansas and Pittsburgh in the 1960s and founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya in 1977. The movement began as a small nursery in her backyard, but grew to such strength that it was perceived as a threat by Moi's government.

She was arrested several times for her environmental campaigning and once was beaten to unconsciousness by police.

She stirred up so much public opposition to a plan in the late 1980s to build a skyscraper in Nairobi's Uhuru Park, the city's main open space, that the government labeled her and the Green Belt Movement as subversive.

She was attacked in parliament, with some MPs calling for her movement to be banned.

But she won the fight. The Uhuru Park project eventually folded because of popular opposition.

In 2002, when the Moi government was voted out, she was elected to parliament and last year was appointed assistant minister for the environment, natural resources and wildlife.

Maathai, always outspoken and often controversial, recently was quoted in Kenya's Standard newspaper as calling AIDS a biological weapon developed as part of an evil conspiracy to destroy black people.

"Do not be naive. AIDS is not a curse from God to Africans or the black people. It is a tool to control them designed by some evil-minded scientists, but we may not know who particularly did," the Aug. 31 article by reporter Amos Kareithi quoted her as saying at a workshop in Nyeri, in her district.

The Nobel Peace Prize committee praised Maathai as "a source of inspiration for everyone in Africa fighting for sustainable development, democracy and peace.

"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," the committee citation said.

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