Honoring sustainable peace

The Norwegian Nobel Committee took a historic step last week, when it awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan academic and environmental activist. It not only honored an African woman for the first time but acknowledged as well, also for the first time, the interconnectedness between environmental sustainability and peace among people.

“She has taken a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular,” the committee wrote of Maathai in its statement. “… More than simply protecting the existing environment, her strategy is to secure and strengthen the very basis for ecologically sustainable development.”

Maathai’s work began 30 years ago as a movement to encourage Kenyan women to plant 30 million trees to counteract deforestation. She hoped to provide a sustainable source of fuel wood as well as lessen soil erosion.

Environmental degradation, she soon realized, could not be separated from other social ills: poverty, authoritarianism, the oppression of women, drugs and disease. She also saw that when resources become dangerously scarce—because of deforestation and desertification, especially—violent conflicts break out. The genocide now taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan is a perfect—and perfectly horrible—example of this phenomenon.

In addition to her work as an environmentalist, Maathai also became a fearless opponent of the former dictator of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi. Once beaten unconscious by his police, she was undeterred—and even, on one occasion, led a demonstration of naked women in protest. When arap Moi finally stepped down, in 2002, Maathai was elected to parliament with 98 percent of the vote when the opposition coalition swept to power. She was appointed as a deputy environmental minister in 2003.

In her acceptance speech, Maathai noted that her award acknowledges that "there can be no peace without equitable development; and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space. This shift is an idea whose time has come." Indeed.