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.