The giving trees

The Norwegian Nobel Committee took a historic step last week when it awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan academic and environmentalist. In doing so, it not only honored an African woman for the first time but also acknowledged, again for the first time, the profound 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 strictly environmental movement whose purpose was to encourage poor Kenyan women to plant 30 million trees to counteract deforestation. The goal of what became known as the Green Belt Movement was to provide a sustainable source of firewood as well as to lessen soil erosion.

Few people embraced her vision to begin with. “It took me a lot of days and nights to convince people that women could improve their environment without much technology or without much financial resources,” she told reporters after winning the prize.

But a slow start did not discourage her. Eventually, the Green Belt Movement became a wild success and was copied in other countries. Importantly, it morphed to include a campaign to educate African woman about nutrition, violence against women and other issues.

Environmental degradation, Maathai soon realized, could not be separated from other ills: poverty, authoritarianism, the oppression of women, drugs and disease. She also saw that sometimes resources become so scarce—because of deforestation and desertification especially—that conflict breaks out. The genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan now taking place 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, she 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.

Maathai has three children by a husband whom she divorced in the 1980s. The former husband became an “ex,” she said, because he thought her “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control.”

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.