IHURURU, Kenya — When Wangari Maathai got word she had won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, she was campaigning to protect Kenya’s forests and distributing food to villagers suffering from drought — the same work she’s been doing for decades.
Maathai was in the countryside — just one hill away from her childhood home — when told she had won the $1.3 million prize, joining a club that includes Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and the Dalai Lama.
The 64-year-old Maathai, the first black African woman to win a Nobel Prize in any category since the awards were first handed out in 1901, gained recent acclaim for a campaign planting 30 million trees to stave off deforestation.
“Many of the wars in Africa are fought over natural resources,” Maathai told The Associated Press. “Ensuring they are not destroyed is a way of ensuring there is no conflict.”
Maathai, Kenya’s deputy environment minister and a former presidential candidate, has worked for nearly half her life to protect the environment and human rights.
During the 1980s and 1990s, she also campaigned against government oppression and founded Kenya’s Green Party in 1987. She was repeatedly arrested and beaten for protesting former President Daniel arap Moi’s environmental policies and human rights record.
With a record 194 nominations, the Norwegian Nobel Committee had a broad field to choose from and could have conferred the prize on someone tied to one of this year’s hottest issues, such as the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Many observers had speculated that the committee might try to send a message about the U.S.-led war in Iraq, as it did in 2002, when members said the choice of former President Jimmy Carter should be seen as criticism of the Bush administration’s move to topple Saddam Hussein.
Indeed, oddsmakers and speculation had pointed to Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency as likely winners. Last year’s award went to Iranian lawyer and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi.
But the committee eschewed politics this year.
“This is the first time environment sets the agenda for the Nobel Peace Prize, and we have added a new dimension to peace,” committee chairman Ole Danbolt Mjoes said in Oslo, Norway.
Poland’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Walesa said the choice of an African environmentalist signaled a shift of attention away from political struggles after the fall of communism and apartheid.
“Perhaps the time has come to fight for our Earth,” Walesa said.
In her first speech after winning the award, Maathai spoke in her native Kikuyu language to an audience of 200 people, most of them poor women who had gathered to collect government food aid. Her message was the same as always — forests and other natural resources must be protected if people are to prosper.
“Don’t farm in forests … because we will lose our forests,” she said. “We have been given the responsibility of caring for future generations, and the younger ones, so that they may have water.”
The crowd clapped politely when she told them she had won another international award, which most of them had never heard of. But they laughed loudly when told the prize brought with it more money that she could count.
Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 while a member of the National Council of Women of Kenya. The group quickly became the largest community-based environmental organization in Africa, with a focus on planting trees and empowering women.
“I was hearing at the National Council of Women of Kenya complaints from women. A lot of them about not having enough firewood, not having enough food for their children and I was discovering there was a lot malnutrition in this part of the country,” she said.
Maathai said she soon discovered political and social problems were contributing to deforestation and the problems faced by women.
She also was praised for standing up to Kenya’s former government, a corrupt and often dictatorial regime led by Moi for 24 years until he stepped down after elections in 2002.
“I am working to make sure we don’t only protect the environment, we also improve governance,” she said, fighting back tears.
Maathai said she would consult financial experts to look into how to use the reward money to start a foundation that will ensure the Green Belt Movement’s work continues.
After the food aid was distributed, Maathai flew to Nairobi to meet with President Mwai Kibaki.
“As a government we are proud to have her as an assistant minister,” Kibaki said. “As Kenyans, we must rededicate ourselves to conserve the environment as a gesture of appreciation of the prestigious award to one of our own.”
Maathai was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate, from the University of Nairobi in 1971. She also has a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh.
Carter called Maathai a “heroine in Kenya and throughout Africa.”
“She has fought courageously to protect the environment and human rights, in the face of severe governmental pressures to silence her often lonely voice,” he said in an e-mail to the AP.
The Peace Prize, which also includes a gold medal and a diploma, is presented in Oslo on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of its founder, Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel. The other Nobel Prizes are presented in Stockholm, Sweden, the same day.
October 8, 2004