Nobel Peace Prize

People are fighting over water, over food and over other natural resources. When our resources become scarce, we fight over them. In managing our resources and in sustainable development, we plant the seeds of peace.

Dr. Wangari Maathai, a 64 year old woman from Kenya has become the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize since its inception in 1901. A dedicated activist for both environmental and human rights concerns, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, in her own backyard with a handful of seedlings and a whole lot of hope. The project has since grown to include "hundreds of tree nurseries throughout Africa" in an effort to stop deforestation that was "stripping the continent bare." The nurseries, in-turn, dole out the seedlings to women who are then paid a small sum for their efforts to plant trees on both private and public land.

We try to make women see they can do something worthwhile. We're trying to empower people, to let them identify their mistakes, to show they can destroy, or build, the environment.

Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya, on April 1, 1940. Little is known about Maathai's early years, but her ability to pursue a higher education, "a rarity for girls in rural areas of Kenya", might have been an omen of Maathai's determination. Reaching America sometime during the Kennedy Administration, Maathai became part of a program to prepare Kenyans for independence. She began at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atkinson, Kansas before earning a M.S. degree in Science at the University of Pittsburgh. Returning to Kenya, Maathai both worked and studied at the University of Nairobi, where she earned a doctorate in biological sciences in 1971. Remaining there as a teacher, Maathai soon became head of the veterinary medicine faculty, a female first at Nairobi.

In the 1970s, while her husband ran for Parliament, Maathai's interest in the country's poor sparked the grass-roots organization that became the Green Belt movement, providing work for the poor and a better future for the environment. The road ahead wasn't an easy one though, fighting against interests determined to clear land for developments, Maathai was repeatedly attacked, beaten, and arrested. Imprisoned in 1991 for opposing a project by the Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi, Maathai remained jailed until Amnesty International became involved. Maathai ran for the presidency of Kenya in 1997, but unbeknownst to Maathai, her candidacy was pulled from the ballot just days before the election. Arrested numerous times by the Moi government, Maathai persisted and prevailed until 2002, when Moi stepped down. Afterwards, Maathai won a seat in Parliament and was appointed Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife. When time permits, Maathai enjoys her role as a Visiting Fellow at Yale University's Global Institute for Sustainable Forestry. At home,her present efforts include the undertaking of a new constitution.

We are working on a Bill of Rights, only ours will include rights not only for human beings, but for animals and the environment.

Much has been made of the decision by the Nobel Committee to award a peace prize to an environmental issue when the world braces against terrorism, nuclear proliferation and war in the Middle East. Believing that the prize would do little to encourage peace in the Holy Land or Iraq, the committee looked at the genocidal conflict in Africa, as well as the AIDS epidemic and continued poverty, and decided to award someone working within Africa who "provides guidance for the future."

As Anna Lappé and Frances Moore Lappé, of the International Herald Tribune, have written:

Perhaps the Nobel Committee wants us to recognize that the real hope for peace, both with each other and with the earth itself, lies in the choices, individual and collective, of empowered citizens.

For many, awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Wangari Maathai seemed a strange decision. Firstly, the connection between sustainable development and peace is not readily apparent to everyone. But it is Wangari's distinction to be Africa's first female Nobel peace laureate, and in Africa the connection between conflict and resources is more obvious than anywhere on the globe. One need only look at the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, sadly now re-igniting, for the importance of resources in causing what is reckoned to be the World's worst conflict since World War II.

Wangari anyway has a long resume of political and human rights activism. After being the first East African woman to receieve a Ph.D from the University of Nairobi, she founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977. It was composed primarily of women, and aimed to plant 30 million trees to produce a sustainable source of fuel wood and prevent soil erosion. It then went on to campaign on other issues important to women, and trained 30,000 in trades to help them make a living while preserving the environment. The Green Belt Movement runs many programmes, involving education in reproductive health and campaigns on issues such as tribal violence, corruption and human rights abuses. However, it has come under criticism for undermining peasants' rights and economic growth in Kenya by over-prioritising the environment.

But most controversial of all for many are reports that Wangari endorses the view that AIDs was created by the West to target blacks, which was a commonplace of Soviet propaganda.1 '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,' she reportedly said.2 The East African Standard has a number of quotes attributed to her, such as -

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.

I may not be able to say who developed the virus, but it was meant to wipe out the black race.3

In a press conference following the award, she told 'European and Asian media' that 'Although I am a biologist, I have not done any research. I may not be able to say who developed the (HIV) virus but it was meant to wipe out the Black race.'4 She's said it in an interview with TIME.5 Her logic as to why it must have been artificially created? In her words to the press conference, 'Some say that AIDS came from the monkeys, and I doubt that because we have been living with monkeys (since) time immemorial, others say it was a curse from God, but I say it cannot be that.'6

For completeness, I should point out that she has attempted to backtrack on these remarks since.7 The preponderance of evidence does not seem to be in her favour, however. If her remarks were taken out of context, it must have been a highly complex context. The Nobel Institute attempted to defuse controversy by issuing a statement supposedly from Wangari claiming that she did not hold these views, but it seems likely that she does in fact entertain them.

This attempt by the Nobel Institute to cover up Wangari's views on this subject show they were aware of them. The question logically follows as to why they then they awarded the Prize to her in the first place. Her first comments appeared in the East African Standard in August 2004, so the committee could clearly take them into consideration.8 After claiming that AIDs was invented by Western scientists who she cannot identify, she goes on to implicate all of the West in the murder for their inaction on the matter.9

It hardly seems conducive to peace for the member of one ethnic group to accuse another of producing genocidal biological weapons to target another without a shred of evidence. Debate aside over whether Wangari's work in Kenya is conducive for economic growth, and although her human rights and women's issues campaigns clearly have merit, this makes her a very bizzare choice for a Nobel Peace Prize. She is, of course, hardly the first, Yasser Arafat (who also on occasion espoused the same AIDs theory, but with Jews as perpetrators) being the most notable past one.

Nobody, of course, is perfect, but with an entire world to choose from it is almost as if the committee only started looking a week before awarding the prize. To have awarded the Prize to her glosses over the greatest problem of our time, which is the gap of understanding and trust between East and West. That one of Africa's most distinguished academics can hold such views is surely a cause for great alarm. The power of misinformation and misunderstanding in the 'Third World' should not be underestimated, and neither should the hatred and difficulties it can cause. This is especially so in a century where our security depends more than ever on co-operation and peaceful understanding between the West and 'the rest'.

1. Mikhail Gorbachev apoligised for this in 1986:
8. Extracts from the article are here:

Sources other than those cited:,,,

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