Friday, October 08, 2004

An inspiration for Asia: Prof. Wangari Maathai Nobel Peace Price 2004

I) Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai has become the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for aiding the continent's poor with a campaign to plant millions of trees to slow down deforestation.

"Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment," the head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Ole Danbolt Mjoes, said in announcing the winner on Friday. He praised her "contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace."

"Maathai stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa," she said.

Maathai won the prize, worth 10 million Swedish crowns (760,000 pounds), from a record field of 194 candidates. Named after Swedish philanthropist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, the prize is handed out in Oslo on December 10.

Maathai is founder of the Kenya-based Green Belt Movement, comprised mainly of women, which says it has planted about 30 million trees across Africa.

Born in 1940, Maathai says that tree plantings slow desertification, preserve forest habitats for wildlife and provide a source of fuel, building materials and food for future generations to help combat poverty.

"I am absolutely overwhelmed," she told Norway's NRK television after confirmation of the award. "This is the biggest surprise in my entire life. When we plant new trees we plant the seeds of peace."

Maathai is the first African woman to win the peace prize and the 12th woman peace laureate since the first award was made in 1901. The last African laureate was U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, of Ghana, in 2001.

The 2003 prize also went to a woman, Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi. The current Nobel Committee, appointed by the Norwegian parliament early in 2003, comprises three women and two men.

Geir Lundestad, the head of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, said in 2001 that the award might shift in its second century to honour new types of activists such as environmentalists, rock stars, perhaps even journalists.

The prize was a surprise. The U.N.'s Internatioanl Atomic Energy Agency and its head, Mohamed ElBaradei, had been widely tipped to win by peace experts.

The Kenyan government said it was very pleased the award had gone to Maathai.

"This is a great testament to the work she has been doing for many years. We are very happy," said Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua.

"It sets an example that if you put your energy into the right places you are eventually recognised and that it leads to a better world."

II) Portrait of Wangari Maathai

Born April 1, 1940.
Also known as: Wangari Muta Maathai

Fields: ecology, sustainable development, self help, tree planting, environment, member of Parliament, Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife

Firsts: first woman in central or eastern Africa to hold a Ph.D., first woman head of a university department in Kenya

Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt movement in Kenya in 1977, which has planted more than 10 million trees to prevent soil erosion and provide firewood for cooking fires. A 1989 United Nations report noted that only 9 trees were being replanted in Africa for every 100 that were cut down, causing serious problems with deforestation: soil runoff, water pollution, difficulty finding firewood, lack of animal nutrition, etc.  The program has been carried out primarily by women in the villages of Kenya, who through protecting their environment and through the paid employment for planting the trees are able to better care for their children and their children's future.

Born in 1940 in Nyeri, Wangari Maathai was able to pursue higher education, a rarity for girls in rural areas of Kenya. She earned her biology degree from Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas and a master's degree at the University of Pittsburgh.

When she returned to Kenya, Wangari Maathai worked in veterinary medicine research at the University of Nairobi, and eventually, despite the skepticism and even opposition of the male students and faculty, was able to earn a Ph.D. there.  She worked her way up through the academic ranks, becoming head of the veterinary medicine faculty, a first for a woman at any department at that university.

Wangari Maathai's husband ran for Parliament in the 1970s, and Wangari Maathai became involved in organizing work for poor people and eventually this became a national grass-roots organization, providing work and improving the environment at the same time.  The project has made significant headway against Kenya's deforestation.

Wangari Maathai's husband divorced her in the 1980s, complaining that she was "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too had to control." (quote from Encyclopedia of World Biography, 1999, Gale Group.)  They had three children.

Wangari Maathai continued her work with the Green Belt Movement, and working for environmental and women's causes. She also served as national chairperson for the National Council of Women of Kenya.

In 1997 Wangari Maathai ran for the presidency of Kenya, though the party withdrew her candidacy a few days before the election without letting her know; she was defeated for a seat in Parliament in the same election.

In 1998, Wangari Maathai gained worldwide attention when the Kenyan President backed development of a luxury housing project and building began by clearing hundreds of acres of Kenya forest. In 1991, she was arrested and imprisoned; an Amnesty International letter-writing campaign helped free her. In 1999 she suffered head injuries when attacked while planting trees in the Karura Public Forest in Nairobi, part of a protest against continuing deforestation. She was arrested numerous times by the government of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi.

In January, 2002, Wangari Maathai accepted a position as Visiting Fellow at Yale University's Global Institute for Sustainable Forestry.

And in December, 2002, Wangari Maathai was elected to Parliament, as Mwai Kibabi defeated Maathai's long-time political nemesis, Daniel arap Moi, for 24 years the President of Kenya.  Kibabi named Maathai as Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife in January, 2003.

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