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2004's Nobel Peace Prize winner looks back

In the twilight of her year as a Nobel laureate, Wangari  Maathai reflects on her role as the first African woman to win the famed peace prize, how Africa needs to change itself and how simply planting trees can lead to good governance.
Kenyan Nobel peace prize winner Professo
Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Wangari Maathai holds a tree that she planted during a visit to an environmental project in South Africa. Gianluigi Guercia / AFP - Getty Images
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Wangari Maathai received the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

Through more than 30 years of efforts with Kenya's Green Belt Movement, Matthai worked to develop grassroots solutions to environmental problems. In the process she encouraged Kenyan women to plant over 30 million trees to help tackle the massive problems of deforestation in their country.

The Nobel Peace Prize committee praised her for “thinking globally and acting locally.”

For years she was vilified by the government of President Daniel arap Moi when her fight against deforestation expanded to a battle against government corruption. She was arrested more than a dozen times, received death threats and was beaten unconscious by police.

In the last few years, Maathai, 65, who received much of her education in the United States, has been largely vindicated. In 2002, Moi stepped aside and Kenya held its first democratic elections. Maathai was elected to parliament with 98 percent of the vote in her district and was named the assistant minister for environment, natural resources and wildlife. 

Her new role has not been without controversy. Last year Maathai was reported as saying that AIDS/HIV virus was a product of bio-engineering created by the West "to punish blacks." She says her remarks were misinterpreted.

With the Nobel committee set to announce this year's peace prize winner on Friday, Maathai  talked about being the first African woman to win the prize, why she thinks she was chosen and how simply planting trees can lead to good governance.

What do you think is the significance of winning the Nobel Peace Prize as an African woman? 
Well, I think that the Nobel committee had a message to send to the world — that there is a strong link between sustainable, accountable and equitable management of resources and governance.

So many of the world’s conflicts are over resources — from smaller-scale conflicts in Kenya to issues like Darfur. They are fights over who has access and control over resources.

The Nobel committee saw that the Green Belt Movement was one organization in Africa that was actually pursuing solutions to these problems and I was the one that was leading it. But I also think they wanted to encourage Africa.

They wanted to tell Africa that here you have an excellent idea that has been struggling with itself. But it is like a streak of light that has refused to go out because there is something to it.

The message to Africa was that you should nurture ideas like this because these are the kind of ideas that will get you out of your situation, out of your sense of hopelessness and encourage and empower you. Manage your resources better, end conflicts over your resources, because, you, Africa, you’re rich.

If you had a message for Americans to help change their perceptions about Africa and Africans, what would it be?
Well, I really don’t think that Americans will change their perception about Africans until Africans change their perceptions about themselves.

It is very important for us in Africa to paint a different picture of ourselves. You have terrible pictures and terrible presentations of Africa. But we allow that. We believe that these people, when they project us very badly, they will get money and bring it to us, and we will be able to overcome some of our problems.  

But what we really need is to encourage ourselves and rely on ourselves, because we have a lot of resources. We need to invest in education. We need to invest in skills. We need to be honest and responsible to ourselves.

Otherwise, we shall continue to be painted as a poor continent. But we have everything that everyone is looking for. We have oil, we have gold, we have diamonds, we have forest, we have water, we have land and we have people. But we have had bad leaders.

So it is we who have to change that perception. Once we have changed, then the rest of the world will say, yeah, it has changed.

Your movement, the Green Belt Movement, has been described as “elegant in its simplicity.” What inspired you begin to planting trees?
In 1975, before the United Nations hosted the first World Conference on Women, in Mexico, the women of Kenya began to talk about what issues they wanted to bring to the table.

Rural women kept raising the issues of clean drinking water, food, the malnourishment of their children and the fact that they didn’t have any money. That kind of surprised me, because many of these women came from the same area where I came from and there was plenty of food and clean drinking water when I grew up.

But from my own observations I could see what was happening to the environment. I could see that there was a loss of soil — due to soil erosion, deforestation and the removal of vegetation — especially along the hilltops, sloping areas and along the rivers. That was because cash crops like tea and coffee had been introduced and planted.

Unlike when I was a child, the land was just exposed and much of the vegetation had been removed. With these cash crops they had also encroached on the river lines and cultivated quite close to the rivers, which wasn’t done before. Before, we always got water directly from the river and drank it, and it was very clean and fresh. But then I was shocked to see that the rivers were brown with silt.

As I tried to understand those issues, I suggested to the women that we can plant trees. At least, I thought, it can provide firewood, fencing material, building material, protection against soil erosion. 

I thought about that because it was easy. It was do-able. It wasn’t something required a lot of money or technology. So I said let us plant trees.

How does the Green Belt Movement work with the idea of good governance?
When I first started working on the Green Belt Movement, I met with individual women and then it became necessary to form groups.

But, there was a law in place from our government, which was very dictatorial and very oppressive at that time — that if I had a meeting of more than nine people, I’d need a license. That was, of course, impractical and it instills fear in you because now someone else has control. So I started to challenge that law.

I saw then that it was not the only law in place that was really interfering with freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of movement, freedom of information. All of these different freedoms were being curtailed, but in a very subtle way.

I decided that that we needed was to educate ourselves on how we are governed and why we are governed that way. 

That is when the movement became more than a tree planting movement, but also a human rights movement.

You made some controversial remarks in regards to the origins of HIV/AIDS being an engineered biological agent. Have your views changed? What, if anything, are you doing about educating people about AIDS?
I’ve explained a lot about the misrepresentation that went with that.

I want to say that one of the great things about being a Nobel Laureate is that everybody thinks that you know everything there is to know about everything!

People are very keen to put you on the bandwagon for their issues. So, I’ve been trying very hard to stick to my issues and not go to other issues.

So, to clarify that issue I did write a very comprehensive statement, “The Challenge of Aids in Africa.” 

Also, as a member of parliament in Kenya, all of us are expected to do our best to pass information, get people tested and encourage those who can to take their medicine. 

Now that your year as the Nobel Peace Prize laureate is almost coming to a close, what’s next?
Yes, the year is fast coming to the end. It has been an extraordinary year. I have been given this wonderful opportunity to share this message with the world.

Since this was the first time that the Nobel committee gave this prize to the environment and made that linkage — between peace, environment, and governance — there is a lot of interest in it. 

The number of people interested in this issue has really grown in terms of groups — small children, children in high school, college kids, governments, kings, and princes — everyone is concerned about the environment now. So I’m sure it will be a long time before we see a waning off of this issue.