Wangari Maathai is congratulated by Mwai Kibaki

NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)–As a United Nations conference on women and the environment ended here Wednesday, female environmental leaders and activists were bolstered by the presence of Wangari Maathai, the just-announced Nobel Peace Prize-winner and Kenya’s deputy minister of the environment.

“Having Wangari Maathai here was a wonderful boost for the work we are doing,” said Lena Sommestad, Sweden’s minister for the environment. “It helped underscore the crucial links between environment and peace and the vital, but all-too-often ignored, role women have in these areas.”

Over 140 women from 60 countries including environment ministers from Iran, Kenya, South Africa, Swaziland and Sweden attended the “Women As the Voice for the Environment” (WAVE) conference at which Maathai gave the opening address. They called for poor women’s groups to be singled out for special funding for water, sanitation and poverty alleviation schemes.

“Sustaining the environment is the peace policy of the 21st Century, so to have Wangari Maathai here was not only an honor but a reminder of how women can transform our world for the better,” said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, which co-hosted the conference along with the New York-based Women’s Environment and Development Organization, co-founded by the late Bella Abzug, who until the time of her death was an outspoken member of the U.S. Congress from New York City and a charismatic women’s rights advocate.

As part of the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, Maathai and Abzug, longstanding friends, led a march protesting violence against women around the world.

Toepfer said that the WAVE recommendations reflected the unique vulnerability women have to environment-related health problems as well as their special role in managing and conserving the environment for current and future generations.

“In the past, the role of women and their know-how has often been side-lined,” he said. “I sincerely hope that our assembly signals an end to this gender apartheid. All too often women are treated like second-class citizens, with fewer rights and lower status than men. I hope we have now started a wave that will wash away the inequities of the past and bring women into the center of environment and development issues.”

Many Other ‘Firsts’

Maathai, a 64-year-old divorced mother of three, has earned “firsts” before.

She is the first woman to earn a doctorate degree in the East and Central African region. And in 1976 she became the first woman to chair the department of veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi.

But this latest first still caught her unawares.

“I had no clue that I had been nominated for the award. I thought it was a joke or a dream,” Maathai told Women’s eNews.

On Friday, Oct. 8, the day she heard the news, Maathai was in her home district of Nyeri, 150 kilometers north of Nairobi, which she has represented in parliament since the 2002 elections.

As deputy minister of the environment in this East African country, she is faced with responsibility for a nation with only 2 percent of forest cover, far short of the 10 percent recommended by the United Nations. Maathai had been waging a tough battle against the so-called shamba system of forest management, under which public forest land is offered to communities for cultivation in return for them tending the existing trees and planting more.

Numerous politicians, government officials and even some of her own constituents who support the shamba system were bitterly criticizing her opposition to it and were even threatening to call for her resignation.

But her detractors fell quiet at news of the award and quickly joined her in celebrating.

“The award has come at a good time when I am at the foot of Mount Kenya that has always inspired me,” she told journalists as she responded to an honor that drew tears of joy and disbelief.

Green Belt Movement

The Nobel Prize committee in Oslo, Norway, cited her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace” and singled out her role in founding the Green Belt Movement, a grass-roots nongovernmental organization that, since 1977, has planted 30 million trees by recruiting poor women to combat deforestation and to replenish their source of fuel for food preparation.

After receiving news of her award, Maathai immediately planted an indigenous tree, a Nandi flame, to celebrate.

And then she went back to the political fray.

At a press conference over the weekend, she told reporters that U.S. voters can help revive a U.N. treaty on global warming, which President George W. Bush rejected shortly after taking office in 2001.

“In a country like America, there are lots of people who would prefer that their government ratify the (Kyoto) protocol, who would gladly change their consumptive lifestyle, especially the rate at which they consume fossil fuel, so that they are not polluters of the environment,” said Maathai, making it clear that she supported John Kerry’s positions on environmental protection.

Difficult Path to Prize

The road to the Nobel Peace Prize has included beatings and even imprisonment.

Most notorious is the day in Jan. 8, 1999, when she led supporters in a march on the Karura Forest near Nairobi, which was shrinking under the pressure of land developers who were sanctioned by the government of the former president, Daniel Moi.

When they attempted to plant trees, Maathai and other members of the Green Belt Movement were severely beaten by armed men acting in concert with the police.

Earlier, in 1989 Maathai forced the government to withdraw plans to construct a 60-storey office block in Uhuru Park, Nairobi’s main public park.

She started working with women in environmental activities to conserve the environment and to raise their quality of life while working as a volunteer at the National Council of Women of Kenya in the 1970s. She rose to chair the council between 1981 and 1987.

Miriri Duncan is a Nairobi-based journalist who covers business, development and gender issues.

For more information:

The Green Belt Movement:

Women’s Environment and Development Organization:

For more information:

Interview with Wangari Maathai, Environmental Activist and Nobel Laureate
by Marianne Schnall

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