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.)