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Kenya's 'Green Militant' Wins Nobel Peace Prize

Champion for Environment, Women

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 9, 2004; Page A01

NAIROBI, Oct. 8 -- Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan activist who founded an Africa-wide movement that empowered women, confronted corrupt officials and planted millions of trees in ravaged forestland, will receive the Nobel Peace Prize for 2004, the Nobel Committee announced Friday in Oslo.

Maathai, the first African woman to win the prize, is known as "Kenya's Green Militant." She has championed the environment for more than 30 years on a continent where many people live close to nature but find it under increasing pressure from development, pollution and war.

American-educated biologist Wangari Maathai, 64, speaks on the telephone to well-wishers near Nyeri, her home in the foothills of Mount Kenya. (Karel Prinsloo -- AP)

"We have added a new dimension to the concept of peace," said Ole Danbolt Mjoes, head of the Nobel Committee, which makes its decisions in secrecy. "We have emphasized the environment, democracy building and human rights, and especially women's rights."

An American-educated biologist, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, when she planted nine tree seeds in the yard of her house. In ensuing years, she and her movement succeeded in persuading women across Africa to do the same to fight the deforestation that is afflicting much of the continent. Trees help farmers by soaking up rain and preserving nutrient-rich topsoil; they also are a crucial habitat for wildlife.

Her group worked closely with village women, whose traditional duties include collecting firewood. By the millions, they were won over to the idea that planting trees and protecting the environment in other ways would help farming and long-term development of their communities and ensure a supply of wood.

Over almost three decades, the movement has brought about the planting of 30 million trees and given jobs to nearly 10,000 women who plant and sell seedlings to make a living. It was one of Africa's first female activist groups and has become a force in community affairs on a wide variety of issues.

"I feel so very excited, and I am very happy and very appreciative of all those who walked the road with me," Maathai, 64, said in a telephone interview. "Many wars we witness around the world are over natural resources. Without a properly managed environment, all of our lives are threatened."

Daniel arap Moi, who ruled Kenya as president for two decades, once called Maathai a "mad woman," and "a threat to the order and security of the country" for her tireless agitation to preserve forests. Moi's party lost a presidential election in 2002; Maathai was elected to parliament that year and is now assistant environment minister.

Maathai said in the interview that she survived critics by having "the thick skin of an elephant."

The tall and velvet-voiced Maathai joins past laureates who include former president Jimmy Carter, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King Jr.

She will receive the award in Oslo on Dec. 10. But on Friday, she celebrated by removing her jewelry, kneeling in the dirt and planting seeds of a Kenyan tree known as the Nandi Flame on the grounds of the Outspan Hotel in Nyeri, her home area in the foothills of Mount Kenya.

President Mwai Kibaki hosted her at the Nairobi State House on Friday evening for a celebration. "Prof. Maathai has waged a sustained campaign to protect our environment," Kibaki said in a statement. "As Kenyans we must re-dedicate ourselves to the fight to conserve the environment as a gesture of appreciation of the prestigious award to one of our own."

Her efforts were not always cherished. In 1989, she led a one-woman charge in court against Moi's autocratic government, after he proposed building the tallest skyscraper in Africa and a six-story statue of himself in the only public green space in Kenya's gritty capital.

"She was threatened physically and was called a busybody in the press, yet she didn't flinch," said Mwalimu Mati, deputy directory of Transparency International, an anti-corruption group with offices in Nairobi. "It was like watching a lone, unknown voice stand up against the whole. She really deserves this, because she's converted a lot of us to understand why the environment is so important. Now she has the real moral authority to challenge people who are selfishly allocating themselves land."

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