Africa, Environment, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS: African Feminist and Enviro Champion Takes Peace Prize

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Oct 8 2004 (IPS) - Human rights and environmental activists are hailing the award of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize to Wangari Maathai of Kenya as fitting recognition of the growing role of civil society in transforming national and international politics, particularly in Africa, over the last several decades.

The 64-year-old Maathai, who has gained a global reputation for courage and integrity in her efforts to save forests and end the autocracy and corruption in Kenya, was informed of the award in her hometown of Nyeri, near Mount Kenya, Friday morning.

She is the first African woman to be awarded the coveted prize since it was created more than 100 years ago.

"The recognition of African women and their contribution to peace and development is long overdue," said Salih Booker, the executive director of Africa Action, a fusion of several groups that led the anti-apartheid movement in the U.S. during the 1970s and 1980s.

"Wangari really represents a different face of African leadership from the heads of state, the foreign ministers, and the generals – all men – that we’re used to seeing," he added. "She represents the real grassroots movements that have joined environmental concerns with human rights to try to make society and government meet the needs of the people in an ecologically sustainable way."

Chiefly known for her leadership of the Green Belt Movement – a campaign to protect and plant millions of trees in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa – Maathai has worked professionally as a university professor. In December 2002, she was elected to Kenya’s parliament and was appointed by Pres. Mwai Kibaki as Deputy Minister for Environment and Natural Resources last year.

The Green Belt Movement has long been seen as a model of grassroots education and mobilisation that has not only planted some 25 million trees throughout Africa, but has also championed biodiversity, soil conservation, and equal rights for women and girls.. She has fought for rural people against mining and other industrial interests that have tried to encroach on their land.

Maathai has also always taught the relationship between the scarcity of natural resources and violent conflict. "The environment is very important in the aspects of peace when we destroy our resources and our resources become scarce, we fight over that," she told the BBC Friday.

For her efforts, she was often harassed and persecuted, and sometimes beaten or thrown in jail.

"For the first time in history, the Nobel Committee has recognised the war on Planet Earth by conferring upon her the Nobel Peace Prize," the international environmental group Greenpeace said Friday. "Throughout her struggles, she’s used the power of non-violence and creative resistance to foil crimes against the planet."

"In a world in which Cold War warriors like Henry Kissinger can receive the prize, and leaders like Tony Blair and George Bush can be nominated for killing tens of thousands of civilians on false pretences, it’s good to see real acts of peace acknowledged," the Amsterdam-based group said. "She’s our kind of Peace Prize winner."

"Wangari Maathai is indeed a very distinguished African environmentalist who has made an incredible contribution to improving the environment and society, not only in Africa but in the world as a whole," said Meena Rama, chair of Friends of the Earth (FoE) International.

"This is a great testimony to the resolute struggles of a great woman," added Nnimmo Bassey, who heads the Nigeria’s FoE chapter.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it was also pleased with the choice.

"She’s done more than anyone else to put the environmental issue on the agenda and one of her great strengths was to insist on working from a civil-society base (and) keeping close to the grassroots," said Michael Clough of HRW’s Africa division.

"From a human rights standpoint, that’s the most-important contribution she’s made in terms of building civil society in Africa," he added.

The peace prize, which will be formally awarded in Oslo on Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day, provides the recipient with some 1.3 million dollars.

"Some of (the money) will definitely go towards the environmental programmes," she told reporters in Nyeri. "I have to make a budget and think about the things I will do – just like rich people (do)."

Maathai has received a number of international environmental awards over the years, including the Goldman Environment and Sophie Prizes.

The Nairobi-based U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), which officially recognised her work in 1987, also hailed the Nobel Committee’s decision.

"Prof. Wangari Maathai is a leader whose example should inspire us all, especially the women and children of Africa who should so much of Africa’s burden of poverty, conflict and environmental degradation and who do so much deserve role models to show them the way to a better future," said UNEP’s director, Klaus Toepfer. "Prof. Maathai is just such a role model." "Wangari herself outlasted (former President) Daniel arap Moi, Kenya’s long-time dictator and, in doing so, represents the triumph of civil society leadership over the official leadership in Africa, which has been largely repressive."

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