Medicinal Plants News

18.10.05 22:52 Age: 13 yrs

Congratulations, Wangari Maathai!


Nobel Peace Prize Winner

On October 8, 2004, Flora Delaterre was delighted to learn that the Nobel Committee in Norway awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Kenyan ecologist and deputy environment minister Wangari Maathai. The prize was in recognition of Maathai’s “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

The journey to the Nobel Prize began when Maathai, a native of Nyeri, Kenya, planted some trees in her backyard. This led her, in the late 1970s, to start the Green Belt Movement in her country. The movement’s short-term goal was to plant trees, but its long-term goals were to fight the devastating effects of deforestation and desertification on both Kenya’s land and people. Maathai mobilized women to plant the trees, which in turn provided them with a little income as well as some education. The trees would be a sustainable source of fuel for the country’s households while, at the same time, holding down Kenya’s soil. Says Maathai, “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.” The Green Belt Movement enlisted more than 50,000 poor women to plant 30 million trees in Kenya and other African countries.

Maathai didn’t stop there. In the late 1980s she opposed a government-supported plan to build a skyscraper in the middle of Nairobi’s largest recreational park, Uhuru Park. She was jailed during her campaign, but she succeeded; the skyscraper was not built. Her efforts to stop her government from turning public lands over to private development continue in addition to other environmental and social battles. She has suffered beatings and jail time more than once.

To Maathai, environmental issues, social and cultural issues, public policy, and women’s issues are not separate. Her work has repeatedly, successfully, and creatively demonstrated their interconnectedness, and conversely, the benefits of her work have been felt in all these realms.    

The first East African woman to earn a PhD, the first woman university professor (of microanatomy) in Kenya, and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Maathai is 64 years old. In addition to schooling in Kenya, she studied in Kansas, Pittsburgh, and Munich. She has three children.

With great foresight, the Nobel Committee wrote of their decision, “Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment.” Maathai believes in the environment’s vital role in peace. She said, “The environment is very important in the aspects of peace because when we destroy our resources and our resources become scarce, we fight over that.” Certainly the truth of these words is hitting hard in America right now, with the events in New Orleans.

Forests aren’t just about trees. They’re also about ecosystems. Deforestation affects medicinal plants by robbing them of habitat. Flora Delaterre takes her hat off to Wangari Maathai and to the Nobel Committee that recognized her work for plants and people.

Photos: At top, Maathai receives word she has won the Nobel Peace Prize (Karel Prinsloo for AP, in Time Europe, Oct. 18, 2004). Below, Maathai with classmates at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas. (Courtesy Mount St. Scholastica).

Check out the Green Belt Movement

Other sources for this article included:

BBC News

South African Institute of International Affairs