Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan firebrand who mobilized the women of Africa in a powerful crusade against deforestation called the "Green Belt Movement," will receive the Nobel Peace Prize for 2004.

The announcement today, by the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee, makes her the first African woman to receive the $1.3 million prize, which is generally regarded as the world's highest tribute. Among past laureates are Jimmy Carter, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King Jr.

Maathai, feminist, environmentalist and crusader against corruption in Kenya, is now her country's deputy environment minister.

Typically, the speculation about who would win this year's prize was all wrong, with most of it centering around immediate events, such as chaos in the Middle East and weapons of mass destruction. Among the "most mentioned" contenders was Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Explaining the choice, Ole Danbolt Mjoes, head of the prize committee, said, "We have added a new dimension to the concept of peace. We have emphasized the environment, democracy building and human rights and especially women's rights."

"I am absolutely overwhelmed," said Maathai, 64.

The award will be handed out in Oslo on Dec. 10.

While Maathai has not been widely known to the general public, she is a legend among global environmental activists and feminist leaders alike and a presence at international environmental conferences. She has been described variously as an "ecofeminist," "ecowomanist" and "Kenya's Green Militant."

The impetus for Maathai's movement was deforestation in Kenya, a process that has taken 90 percent of the country's forest during the past 50 years. One of the consequences Maathai saw was that women and girls had to spend hours every day searching for wood for cooking fuel.

In 1978, Maathai, then a U.S.-educated college professor at the University of Nairobi, suggested the planting of trees as a way to help rural women. The movement spread across Africa and was responsible for planting more than 30 million trees. She expanded her efforts later to embrace human rights, women's rights and the politics of democracy, and eventually to protest the regime of former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi.

In 1989, the deep-voiced and statuesque Maathai led a one woman-charge against the autocratic government of arap Moi when he wanted to build a skyscraper and six-story statue of himself in gritty Nairobi's only public green space.

She lost her case in court, but because of her protest no financiers were willing to work on the project. Today, that area of the park is called "Freedom Corner."

From time to time she has been intimidated and even beaten by police in the course of her protests. She was hospitalized in Kenya in 1999 after being clubbed by guards hired by developers while she and her followers tried to plant trees in Karura forest.

In 1992, she was among a group of women who stripped naked in downtown Nairobi to protest police torture. The police had beaten them to disperse their demonstration and, as she later said, the women "resorted to something they knew traditionally would act on the men. . . . They stripped to show their nakedness to their sons. It is a curse to see your mother naked."

"She was threatened physically and was called a busybody in the press, yet she didn't flinch," said Mwalimu Mati, deputy director of Transparency International, a watchdog group in Nairobi.

"She's converted a lot of us to understand why the environment is so important," said Mati. "She worked alone for a very long time and she deserves this recognition. Now she has the real morale authority to challenge people who are selfishly allocating themselves land."

"Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment," the Nobel committee said in its citation today. "Maathai stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa. She has taken a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women's rights in particular. She thinks globally and acts locally."

In Nairobi today, David Makali, the director of the Media Institute, said: "This is fabulous news and real legitimately good news . . . for Kenya and Africa. This will increase the visibility of the country and our campaign" for environmental reform. "We are really in a crisis with our forest cover below 2 percent," he said.

Maathai earned a degree in biological sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kan., in 1964. The received an MS degree two years later from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi in 1971.

Indeed, she was the first woman in east and central Africa to earn a doctorate degree and the first to become a ranking professor at a major university.

"I have had the fortune of breaking a lot of records," Maathai said in a 1992 interview with The Washington Post. "First woman this. First woman that. And I think that created a lot of jealousy without me realizing. Sometimes we don't quite realize that not everybody's clapping when we're succeeding."

Among those not clapping was her husband, who launched a very public, nasty divorce action against her. When he won -- on the grounds, as she put it, that she was "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control" -- she denounced the judges and landed in jail on contempt charges.

She introduced the tree-planting idea while she was involved in the National Council of Women of Kenya. At first, it concentrated on farms, schools and church compounds. In 1986, she helped establish a Pan African Green Belt Network, which drew in women from other African countries.

In speeches, she has explained it this way: "The movement . . . addresses the issues of wood fuel, both for the rural populations and the urban poor, the need for fencing and building materials, the rampant malnutrition and hunger, the need to protect forests, water catchment areas, open spaces in urban centers and the need to improve the low economic status of women. In the process this leads to activities which help to transfer farming techniques, knowledge and tools to women. Also to enhance leadership capacity of the participants.

"The movement informs and educates participants about the linkages between degradation of the environment and development policies. It encourages women to create jobs, prevent soil loss, slow the processes of desertification, loss of bio-diversity and plant and to eat indigenous food crops. The organization tries to empower women in particular and the civil society in general so that individuals can take action and break the vicious circle of poverty and under-development."

Wax reported from Nairobi.