More on Kenyan environmentalist wins Peace Prize (9/10/2004)
For Wangari Maathai on the link between patents on life, GM and food insecurity
Kenyan environmentalist wins Peace Prize
By SAMSON MULUGETA
The Associated Press, October 9, 2004
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- When news arrived Friday near the foothills of Mount Kenya that she had won the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai celebrated in the best way she knows: She sank to her knees and planted a tree.
Maathai, 64, a deputy minister in the Kenyan government who pugnaciously fought previous governments to stop deforestation, has already helped plant more than 25 million trees in a continent beset by environmental devastation.
She is the first African woman to win the prize, and beat out 194 other contenders.
The Nobel committee's selection immediately made Maathai a global celebrity. But she is no overnight wonder. Through a group she created in 1977, the Green Belt Movement, she preached a single message to fellow Africans: If you mismanage your resources, you will perish.
The Peace Prize has traditionally gone to figures promoting peace and security. Maathai's selection underscores the committee's contention that "peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment."
Announcing its selection, the committee said, "We believe that Maathai is a strong voice speaking for the best forces in Africa to promote peace and good living conditions on that continent."
It also hoped its selection would spotlight Africans' unheralded struggle to improve their lives.
Maathai had been harassed and imprisoned by the government of former President Daniel arap Moi, who stepped down in 2002. After years as an outside critic of the Kenyan government, Maathai was swept into office that same year when the ruling party lost power. She is now a member of Parliament and an assistant environment minister.
Friday, she greeted her award as a victory to Africa -- and African women in particular.
"This is extremely encouraging to the people of Africa and the African woman," she told the BBC. "It is a recognition of the many efforts of African women, who continue to struggle despite all the problems they face."
Maathai, a mother of three grown children, did not know until a few hours before the announcement that she had even been nominated. "I thought it was a joke. ... I want to commend the committee for being the biggest secret keepers. I had no clue," she told Reuters. "I was shaking and crying and I looked at the mountain -- this mountain that has inspired me for many years. I particularly liked the fact that the news reached me here in Nyeri, at home in front of Mount Kenya."
Standing 5-foot-8, Maathai is known in Kenya as a blunt-spoken figure who has redefined the role of women in a nation where they often are treated as second-class citizens.
In the past decade, she has successfully stopped the construction of an office building in a Nairobi park and the destruction of a state forest to build luxury homes. She also has campaigned against the use of genetically modified food.
Educated by Irish Catholic nuns, Maathai was a scientist before she became an activist. She was one of the first Kenyan women to earn a doctorate in biology and went on to become the first professor at the nation's university. Her outspokenness soon got her booted out, and she began a group that has worked to avert desertification in Kenya by planting trees.
Her prize was celebrated across Africa.
"It's all very exciting," said Nnimmo Bassey of the Friends of the Earth Nigeria, speaking by phone from Lagos.
"We environmentalists are sometimes portrayed as anti-development, as anti-progress, but this award is a great vindication that caring for the environment is crucial to Africans who live so close to the earth."
"History has many records of crimes against humanity, which were also justified by dominant commercial interests and governments of the day. Despite protests from citizens, social justice for the common good was eroded in favour of private profits. Today, patenting of life forms and the genetic engineering which it stimulates, is being justified on the grounds that it will benefit society, especially the poor, by providing better and more food and medicine. But in fact, by monopolising the 'raw' biological materials, the development of other options is deliberately blocked. Farmers therefore, become totally dependent on the corporations for seeds." - Wangari Mathai, Coordinator, The Green Belt Movement, Nairobi, Kenya