Wangari Maathai - an excerpt from the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s acceptance speech


As the first African woman to receive this prize, I accept it on behalf of the people of Kenya and Africa and indeed the whole world. Although this prize comes to me, it acknowledges the work of countless individuals and groups across the world. They work quietly and often without recognition to protect the environment, promote democracy, defend human rights and ensure equality between women and men. By so doing, they plant the seeds of peace. I know they too are proud today.

I am also grateful to the people of Kenya who remained stubbornly hopeful that democracy could be realized and the environment managed sustainably. I am immensely privileged to join my fellow African Peace Laureates, President Nelson

Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner. Reuters photo.
Wangari Maathai. Reuters Photo

Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the late Chief Albert Lutuli, the late Anwar al-Sadat and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. I know that African people everywhere are encouraged by this news. My fellow Africans, as we embrace this recognition let us use it to intensify our commitment to our people. Let us embrace democratic governance, protect human rights and protect our environment. I’m confident that we shall rise to the occasion. I have always believed that solutions to most of our problems will have to come from us.

In this year’s prize the Norwegian Nobel Committee has placed the critical issue of environment and its linkage to democracy, and peace before the world. For their visionary action I am profoundly grateful. Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come.

My inspiration partly comes from my childhood experiences and observations of nature in rural Kenya. As I was growing up I witnessed forests being cleared and replaced by commercial plantations which destroyed local biodiversity and the capacity of forests to conserve water. In 1977 when we started the Green Belt Movement, I was partly responding to the needs identified by rural women, namely lack of firewood, clean drinking water, balanced diets, shelter, and income. Throughout Africa women are the primary care-takers, holding significant responsibility for tilling the land and feeding their families. They are often the first to become aware of environmental damage as resources become scarce and incapable of sustaining their families.

I came to understand that when the environment is destroyed, plundered, or mismanaged, we undermine our quality of life and that of our future generations. Tree planting became a natural choice to address some of the initial basic needs identified by women. Also, tree planting is simple, attainable, and guarantees quick, successful results within a reasonable amount of time. These are all important to sustain interest and commitment. So together we planted over 30 million trees that provide fuel, food, shelter, and income to support children and education and household needs. The activity also creates employment and improves soils and watersheds.

Through their involvement, women gained some degree of power over their lives, especially their socioeconomic position and relevance in the family. This work continues. Initially the work was difficult, because historically our people have been persuaded to believe that, because they are poor, they lack not only capital but also knowledge and skills to address their challenges. Instead, they are conditioned to believe that the solutions to their problems must come from outside. Further, women did not at that time realize that meeting their needs depended on their environment being healthy and well managed. They were also unaware that a degraded environment leads to a scramble for scarce resources and may culminate in poverty and even conflict. They were also unaware of the injustices of international economic arrangements. In order to assist communities to understand these linkages, we developed a citizen education program during which people identify their problems, causes and solutions. They then make connections between their actions and the problems they witness in the environment and in society.

Ms. Maathai is Kenya’s Deputy Environment Minister.

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