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Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai WinsNobel Peace Prize for leading green belt movement

 Special and Exclusive to USAfrica The Newspaper, Houston, TheBlack Business Journal

IHURURU, Kenya Oct. 8, 2004 &emdash; When Wangari Maathai got wordshe had won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, she was campaigningto protect Kenya's forests and distributing food to villagerssuffering from drought the same work she's been doing fordecades.

Maathai was in the countryside just one hill away from herchildhood home when told she had won the $1.3 million prize, joininga club that includes Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and the DalaiLama.

The 64-year-old Maathai, the first black African woman to win aNobel Prize in any category since the awards were first handed out in1901, gained recent acclaim for a campaign planting 30 million treesto stave off deforestation. "Many of the wars in Africa are foughtover natural resources," Maathai told The Associated Press. "Ensuringthey are not destroyed is a way of ensuring there is noconflict."

Maathai, Kenya's deputy environment minister and a formerpresidential candidate, has worked for nearly half her life toprotect the environment and human rights.

During the 1980s and 1990s, she also campaigned against governmentoppression and founded Kenya's Green Party in 1987. She wasrepeatedly arrested and beaten for protesting former President Danielarap Moi's non-progressive environmental policies and human rightsrecord.

With a record 194 nominations, the Norwegian Nobel Committee had abroad field to choose from and could have conferred the prize onsomeone tied to one of this year's hottest issues, such as theproliferation of nuclear weapons.

Many observers had speculated that the committee might try to senda message about the U.S.-led war in Iraq, as it did in 2002, whenmembers said the choice of former President Jimmy Carter should beseen as criticism of the Bush administration'smove to topple Saddam Hussein.

Indeed, oddsmakers and speculation had pointed to MohamedElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency as likelywinners. Last year's award went to Iranian lawyer and human rightsactivist Shirin Ebadi.

But the committee eschewed politics this year. "This is the firsttime environment sets the agenda for the Nobel Peace Prize, and wehave added a new dimension to peace," committee chairman Ole DanboltMjoes said in Oslo, Norway.

Poland's Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Walesa said the choice ofan African environmentalist signaled a shift of attention away frompolitical 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 hernative Kikuyu language to an audience of 200 people, most of thempoor women who had gathered to collect government food aid. Hermessage was the same as always forests and other natural resourcesmust be protected if people are to prosper. "Don't farm in forests... because we will lose our forests," she said. "We have been giventhe responsibility of caring for future generations, and the youngerones, so that they may have water."

The crowd clapped politely when she told them she had won anotherinternational award, which most of them had never heard of. But theylaughed loudly when told the prize brought with it more money thatshe could count.

Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 while a member ofthe National Council of Women of Kenya. The group quickly became thelargest community-based environmental organization in Africa, with afocus on planting trees and empowering women. "I was hearing at theNational Council of Women of Kenya complaints from women. A lot ofthem about not having enough firewood, not having enough food fortheir children and I was discovering there was a lot malnutrition inthis part of the country," she said.

Maathai said she soon discovered political and social problemswere contributing to deforestation and the problems faced by women.She also was praised for standing up to Kenya's former government, acorrupt and often dictatorial regime led by Moi for 24 years until hestepped down after elections in 2002. "I am working to make sure wedon't only protect the environment, we also improve governance," shesaid, fighting back tears.

Maathai said she would consult financial experts to look into howto use the reward money to start a foundation that will ensure theGreen Belt Movement's work continues. After the food aid wasdistributed, Maathai flew to Nairobi to meet with President MwaiKibaki.

"As a government we are proud to have her as an assistantminister," Kibaki said. "As Kenyans, we must rededicate ourselves toconserve the environment as a gesture of appreciation of theprestigious award to one of our own."

Maathai was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn adoctorate, from the University of Nairobi in 1971. She also has amaster'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 humanrights, in the face of severe governmental pressures to silence heroften 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 Osloon Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of its founder, Swedishindustrialist Alfred Nobel. The other Nobel Prizes are presented inStockholm, Sweden, the same day.

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