After being arrested, beaten, and jailed for her efforts, environmentalist and political activist Wangari Maathai of Kenya has won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.
Maathai, 64, is the first African woman to win the prize, announced 8 October, and the first to be honored for environmental work. The founder of the Green Belt Movement, which since 1976 has organized local groups to plant an estimated 30 million trees across eastern and southern Africa, Maathai was a long-time opponent of Kenya's former strongman Daniel arap Moi. She was physically attacked by opponents on several occasions and was once released from jail only after Amnesty International helped fuel international protests. Since 2002 she has served as deputy environment minister under President Mwai Kibaki and also holds a seat in Kenya's parliament.
In awarding the prize, the Norwegian Nobel committee said that Maathai "combines science, social commitment, and active politics. More than simply protecting the existing environment, her strategy is to secure and strengthen the very basis for ecologically sustainable development." Maathai's win also breaks new ground by recognizing environmental activism as worthy of the prize, along with peacemaking and human rights work. "Peace depends on our ability to secure our environment," said Ole Danbolt Mjoes, the Nobel Committee chairman.
Maathai earned a Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi, one of the first women in the region to do so. She later chaired the school's department of veterinary anatomy, also a first for a woman. Maathai is "delightful, ebullient, and dynamic" as well as a keen thinker, says Chad Oliver of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in New Haven, Connecticut, where Maathai was a visiting scholar in 2002. "She's able to look at a cloud of information and cut right through to the core."
Maathai is "a shining star for all of us," says elephant researcher Joyce Poole of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya. The award may also increase pressure for environmental reforms by the current Kenyan government, which has been plagued by corruption, she adds. "We had so hoped for positive change, and things just haven't happened," says Poole, "but Wangari has stood strong," even threatening to resign after moves to weaken several of her initiatives.