Environment

A Woman of Firsts

In awarding the Peace Prize to Waangari Maathai, the Nobel Committee signaled its recognition that peace is not possible without environmental sustainability.
When Waangari Maathai got news that she had received the Nobel Peace Prize, she removed her jewelry, knelt down in the dirt and planted seeds of a Kenyan tree known as the Nandi Flame on the grounds of the Outspan Hotel in Nyeri, in the foothills of Mount Kenya. "It cannot get any better than this," she said. "Maybe in heaven."

Maathai is a woman of firsts: the first woman in eastern and central Africa to earn a doctorate, the first female professor at the University of Nairobi and, now, the first African woman to win the Peace Prize.

Known as Kenya's "Green Militant," she founded the Green Belt movement – a grassroots women's group which since the late 1970s has planted more than 30 million trees in Kenya and a dozen other African countries, halting the deforestation that has stripped much of the continent bare. And as important, as a New York Times profile noted, the movement "has also nurtured as many women as it has acacias or cedars" – providing jobs, economic opportunity and independence to nearly 10,000 women who plant and sell seedlings for a living.

"Many wars we witness around the world are over natural resources," Maathai said the other day. "Without a properly managed environment, all of our lives are threatened ... In sustainable development, we plant the seeds of peace."

Maathai's passionate dedication to building a sustainable environment for the local and global community has always been linked to her fierce commitment to empowering women within their communities and fighting the forces of greed and corruption that threaten natural resources and human rights.

In awarding the Peace Prize to Maathai, the Nobel Committee signaled its recognition that peace is possible only when communities can achieve economic and environmental sustainability. "We have added a new dimension to the concept of peace," said the head of the Nobel Committee. "We have emphasized the environment, democracy building, human rights and especially women's rights."

Maathai's courageous resistance to Kenya's former leader, Daniel Arap Moi – who ruled for two decades – was the centerpiece of a 1995 article she contributed to The Nation. Published as part of a forum on challenges facing women on the eve of the UN's Fourth World Conference on Women, her piece is a bold statement of opposition to what she termed "greedy and egocentric leaders [who] assisted by international companies take advantage" of the power they have to ravage the environment and lay waste to their countries.

In 1999, as a result of her uncompromising opposition to the Kenyan president's corruption, Maathai – along with other Green Belt members – was beaten and arrested by security forces for protesting the clearing of a forest near Nairobi for a luxury housing development. Maathai seized the country's attention by insisting on signing her police report in blood from her head wound. The houses were never built.

Moi, who once called Maathai a "madwoman" and "a threat to the order and security of the country" for her relentless work to preserve Kenya's forests, lost a presidential election in 2002. That same year, Maathai was elected to parliament; she is now assistant minister for the environment.

Many in Kenya hope that Maathai's newfound global fame will draw attention to a current controversy in her country. According to the Washington Post, top government officials, including Moi and another former president Jomo Kenyatta, are accused of taking public lands for their private use in order to clear trees for quick profits. "The generation that destroys the environment is usually not the generation that suffers," Maathai said.

And for the suffering women of Africa, her prize sends an inspirational message. "The culture pulls us down so often," said Beatrice Elachi of the National Council of Kenya. "We are told to give way to men. But now, thanks to Wangari, every woman will know she can make it."
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.
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