Nobel Laureate Maathai Links Environment to Peace, Democracy
OSLO, Norway (Environment News Service)--"As the first African woman to receive this prize, I accept it on behalf of the people of Kenya and Africa, and indeed the world." With these words, Wangari Muta Maathai accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on Deccmber 10 in Oslo. Maathai used her lecture to warn that environmental destruction must be reversed so that "humanity stops threatening its life-support system."
Saying that as a mother she hopes her selection for this award will inspire young people, Maathai acknowledged the work of "countless individuals and groups across the globe" who "work quietly and often without recognition to protect the environment, promote democracy, defend human rights and ensure equality between women and men."
"By so doing," said Maathai, "they plant seeds of peace."
"To all who feel represented by this prize I say use it to advance your mission and meet the high expectations the world will place on us," said Maathai.
Saying that African people everywhere are encouraged by her award, Maathai mentioned the other Africans who have been awarded the Peace Prize - Presidents Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the late Chief Albert Luthuli, the late Anwar el-Sadat and the present United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.
For the first time, the Nobel Committee linked the Peace Prize with environmental issues, broadening the definition of peace, and sending a message to the world that peace must grow out of the soil of democracy and environmental health.
"In this year's prize," Maathai told the Nobel audience Friday night, "the Norwegian Nobel Committee has placed the critical issue of environment and its linkage to democracy and peace before the world. For their visionary action, I am profoundly grateful. Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come."
The first African woman Nobel Peace Laureate adds this new honor to a long string of firsts in her life.
Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya in 1940. The first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, she obtained a degree in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas in 1964. Two years later, she earned a Master of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh. She pursued doctoral studies in Germany and the University of Nairobi, obtaining a PhD in 1971 from the University of Nairobi where she also taught veterinary anatomy. She became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and an associate professor in 1976 and 1977 respectively. In both cases, she was the first woman to attain those positions in the region.
Maathai was active in the National Council of Women of Kenya starting in 1976 and was its chairman from 1981 to 1987. It was while she served with the National Council of Women that she introduced the idea of planting trees to conserve the environment and improve the quality of life for women.
From the planting of a few backyard trees, Maathai grew the Green Belt Movement into a grassroots organization that focuses on environmental conservation, community development and capacity building. Green Belt women have now planted more than 20 million trees on their farms and on schools and church compounds.
By the early 1990s, the Green Belt program had been replicated in nearly a dozen other sub-Saharan African countries, and in Kenya, the Green Belt Movement's some 80,000 members had planted about 10 million trees in more than 1,000 nurseries. The movement had by then attracted the support of the United Nations and the governments of several European countries as well as hundreds of individual donors living throughout the world, enabling it to operate on an annual budget of about US$5 million.
Maathai told the Nobel audience that her childhood experience of deforestation motivated her work with the Green Belt Movement. "As I was growing up," she said, "I witnessed forests being cleared and replaced by commercial plantations, which destroyed local biodiversity and the capacity of the forests to conserve water."
Treeplanting is still her primary motivation. In fact, when Maathai heard in October that she had won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, she planted a tree.
She has learned that to correct
environmental problems, good governance is essential.
"As we progressively understood the causes
of environmental degradation," she said,
"we saw the need for good governance. Indeed,
the state of any county's environment is a reflection
of the kind of governance in place, and without
good governance there can be no peace. Many
countries, which have poor governance systems,
are also likely to have conflicts and
"In 2002," she said in
Oslo, "the courage, resilience, patience
and commitment of members of the Green Belt
Movement, other civil society organizations,
and the Kenyan public culminated in the peaceful
transition to a democratic government and laid
the foundation for a more stable society."
In that year, the Moi government was replaced
by a government
Maathai closed her Nobel lecture with a warning, saying, "Activities that devastate the environment and societies continue unabated. Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system."
"We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own - indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life, with which we have shared our evolutionary process," she said.
"In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other," she said.
"That time is now."
"The Norwegian Nobel Committee has challenged the world to broaden the understanding of peace: there can be no peace without equitable development; and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space. This shift is an idea whose time has come," said Maathai.
She called on African leaders to "expand democratic space and build fair and just societies that allow the creativity and energy of their citizens to flourish."
Maathai appealed for the freedom of her fellow laureate Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma (Myanmar), who won the Peace Prize in 1991 but remains under house arrest.
Finally, Maathai returned to her childhood and to the need for planting trees. "As I conclude, I reflect on my childhood experience when I would visit a stream next to our home to fetch water for my mother," she said, recalling the tadpoles she saw hatch out in that stream.
"Today, over 50 years later, the stream has dried up, women walk long distances for water, which is not always clean, and children will never know what they have lost. The challenge is to restore the home of the tadpoles and give back to our children a world of beauty and wonder."