Her musical name hides a fierce spirit. For more than three decades she's faced down dictators and detractors, building a Green Belt Movement in her native Kenya and helping plant millions of trees around Africa. Now Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, is suddenly a global symbol of the often overlooked connection between protecting the environment and preventing conflict.
Like so much in her career, the award has sparked controversy.
Why, critics ask, should the Nobel Peace Prize go to an environmental activist? Under Alfred Nobel's will, the prize belongs to "the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." For more than 50 years after the industrialist's death in 1896, the Nobel Committee (appointed by the Norwegian parliament) awarded the Peace Prize to politicians, diplomats and international bureaucrats.
But after World War II, the Nobel Committee began taking a more expansive view of its charter. In 1952 the committee awarded the Peace Prize to Albert Schweitzer, a physician and missionary whose legendary contributions to humanity did not include -- except perhaps indirectly -- conflict avoidance of the type narrowly described by Nobel's testament. Since then winners have included Norman Borlaug, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu and Elie Wiesel -- extraordinary individuals whose selection reflects growing interest by the committee both in inspirational leaders and the forces behind strife.
In this tradition, selecting an environmental activist for the Nobel Peace Prize is not only proper but inspired. Doing so when much of the world's attention is focused on daily casualties in a controversial war is especially farsighted. By shining a spotlight on a topic that would otherwise receive little attention -- the role of the natural environment in human conflict -- the Nobel Committee may help prevent tragedies.
But what does protecting the environment have to do with preventing conflict? First, environmental degradation is often a precursor of violence.
Nowhere is this demonstrated more vividly than in Darfur. The immediate cause of the tragedy in Sudan is the ruthless behavior of government forces and militias toward unarmed civilians. But lying behind today's disaster is the desertification of northern Darfur during the past two decades. Extended drought and poor land management have pushed the desert southward year after year, forcing Arab nomads from the north deeper into southern farmlands while breeding resentment and conflict.
Could the tragedy in Darfur have been averted if a charismatic leader such as Wangari Maathai had helped the people of Sudan protect their soils and prevent desertification? Perhaps. Similar questions could be asked in many places around the globe.
In the Philippines, a long-standing insurgency finds a ready source of recruits from those trapped in poverty by reckless deforestation. In Mexico, soil erosion and deforestation fueled a rebellion in Chiapas in the mid-1990s that shook the national government and contributed to a peso crisis that rattled financial markets around the world.
In Pakistan, where the world community has a vital interest in preventing deterioration of the social order, degraded croplands are forcing many poor farmers to migrate to Karachi and other urban centers, where shortages of clean water and electric power have sparked violence.
Scholarly studies suggest that ecological stress is often a cause of conflict within nations (and even, occasionally, between nation-states). Ecological stress frequently exacerbates more obvious social problems, such as ethnic rivalries, that are more likely to be identified as the immediate causes of strife.
There are other connections between the environment and conflict. A common affinity for the natural world can help bring rivals together and overcome bitterness. It's no accident that in the 1970s, as doors between China and the United States opened for the first time in decades, the Chinese government sent a panda to the United States as a symbol of rapprochement.
In addition, environmental activism has played an important role in the struggle for democracy. In Central and Eastern Europe, environmental groups such as the Danube Circle provided vehicles for popular dissatisfaction with communist regimes in the late 1980s. In China, protests over the Three Gorges Dam helped spark the democracy movement at Tiananmen Square.
The compelling immediacy of car bombs, kidnappings and beheadings will always capture headlines. Wise leaders will pay attention not just to today's battles but also to the forces that can help reduce conflict in years to come.
The Nobel Committee spoke wisely last week in recognizing that "[p]eace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment." Wangari Maathai's example can help peace take root in many places around the world.
The writer, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, was senior director for environmental affairs on the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration.