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 thirty 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 enviroment, 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. (See below for the full text.)

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 “mad woman” 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.”


…And the Other Nobel Peace Prize Winner

Many–including internet bookmaker Centrebet–the first to organize betting on the Nobel Peace Prize contest–had listed Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as favorites at 4-1 for their work in reducing the risks of nuclear proliferation. (Maathai was such an outsider that you couldn’t bet on her by name.)

If the Nobel Committee had awarded ElBaradei the prize, it would have been another powerful acknowledgment that the Bush Administration’s rationale for war lies in tatters. And it would have vindicated the work of ElBaredei and the IAEA, whose prescient and well-documented work was pilloried and dismissed by the US media and the Bush Administration in the run up to war. In the end, preventive war failed while sanctions, inspections and containment worked.

But vindication comes in other forms. As ElBaradei told reporters at the Japan National Press Club the very day of the Nobel announcement, he felt “vindicated” after the release of a report by the chief US weapons inspector, Charles Duelfer, confirming that there were no WMDs and no active WMD programs in Iraq. “Although it took a war to prove that, we were proven correct,” ElBaradei said. “The lesson I take is that the international community should listen to us more carefully in the future before they take the decision to use coercive action.”

A Nobel for an extraordinarily courageous and prescient African women; vindication for inspections over war….not a bad week. Here’s hoping that November brings equally hopeful news.

*****The following was written by Wangari Maathai and published in the September 11, 1995, issue of The Nation.

Although democracy and economic development are advancing in South Africa and other African nations, the tragic truth is that much of the continent is being impoverished by greedy and egocentric leaders assisted by international companies who take advantage of the fact that some presidents run their country as if it were their personal property. Oppressed, cowed and living in debilitating poverty, the majority of Africans can only watch as their leaders mortgage them and their lands with projects they neither want nor need.

In Kenya, my own country, President Daniel Arap Moi has contracted with a Canadian group to build a multimillion-dollar international airport in his hometown, Eldoret, when the two existing airports in Mairobi and Mombasa are grossly under utilized and mismanaged. The French have just completed another multimillion-dollar white elephant in the same area, the Turkwell hydroelectric complex, which ordinary Kenyans must pay for.

The UN women’s conference should pressure the World Bank, IMF and donor countries to do business by behaving as if people matter. That must be a major mission of delegations and women participating in the conference and the N.G.O. forum when they return to their homelands.

Male misleadership and incitement of tribal conflicts have brought wars, mass rapes, starvation and other horrors to some African countries. Women must rise to the occasion and say No to the guns. And at the UN conference in Beijing and around the world, we must say Yes to women’s political, economic and social empowerment.

Wangari Maathai is the founder of the Green Belt movement, a grass-roots organization of women who have planted more than 10 million trees in Kenya and a dozen other African countries. Maathai, a professor of chemistry, was Kenya’s first woman Ph.D. and the first woman member of its Parliament. She is also a co-chair of the women’s Environment & Development Organization.