Wangari Maathai: Queen of the greens

As befits the first African woman to win a Nobel Prize, Wangari Maathai is a pioneer whose career boasts a string of groundbreaking achievements. Meera Selva reports

Wangari Maathai is a woman of firsts. The trailblazing Kenyan environmentalist was already the first woman in East or Central Africa to earn a doctorate and the first to head a university department. Yesterday she became the first African woman to win a Nobel peace prize. She is also the first to win it for environmental work. Ms Maathai was so excited she was even the first to tell the the world about it, blurting the news to reporters 15 minutes before the Nobel committee in Oslo made it official.

The committee praised her "holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women's rights". They also presented her with a challenge that will be yet another first: how to spend the £750,000 that comes with the award, to be presented in Oslo on 10 December. "I have never seen so much money in my life," she told reporters at her home town of Nyeri, which nestles in the shadow of Mount Kenya. "It cannot get any better than this; maybe in heaven."

The woman who championed all the right causes long before they became fashionable will devote her windfall to good causes. "Some of it will definitely go towards the environmental programmes," she said. "I have to make a budget and think about the things I will do, just like rich people."

For Peace Prize watchers and Nobel bookies, Ms Maathai's win will come as a surprise. But Kenyans see her award as a natural reward for a lifetime of hard work. Born in 1940 among the green hills and coffee plantations of Nyeri, the burial place of Lord Baden Powell, founder of the scouting movement, Ms Maathai set herself high standards. In a country where few girls go on to higher education, she travelled to America after high school to take a biology degree and a master's. When she returned to Kenya, she gained a PhD in veterinary medicine, eventually heading the university department.

She becomes the seventh African to win the Nobel Prize for Peace. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan won in 2001, and Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk shared it in 1993. But Ms Maathai, in addition, has won the admiration of an emerging generation of middle-class African women, who were looking for a role model in a traditionally male-dominated society.

"When we were growing up, it was so hard for us girls who were clever to know what to do," Lydia, a bank manager in Nairobi, said yesterday. "Our parents encouraged us, but they were most concerned about how we would find husbands and have children. People like Wangari Maathai showed us that it was possible to fight for other things we believed were important."

The Nobel committee focused on Ms Maathai's work in preserving Kenya's lush, green landscape, which she believed was being destroyed by over-farming and ill-planned development. British colonialists and Kenyan farmers are estimated to have cleared 75 per cent of woodland in the past 150 years, leaving just 2 per cent of Kenya's land under forest cover.

"I was hearing complaints from women," Ms Maathai said. "A lot of them said they did not have enough fire wood, [or] enough food for their children and I was discovering there was a lot malnutrition in my part of the country. 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. I am working to make sure we don't only protect the environment, we also improve governance."

The Green Belt movement she founded in 1977 is widely acclaimed as being among the most innovative and far-reaching environmental movements. Its premise is simple: it encourages people, especially women, to plant trees to prevent deforestation, then campaigns for the preservation of green spaces. The trees can be used for firewood, and to prevent soil erosion.

The movement has spread to 20 African countries, and is said to be responsible for the planting of 30 million trees across the continent. International environmental agencies have been keen to help, and Ms Maathai has had support from the US-based Marion Foundation, and the governments of Australia and the Netherlands. The UN has backed her claims that Kenya is adding to the rapid rate of global deforestation, and supported her calls for the government to stop logging forests at the base of Mount Kenya to make plots for landless people. She has already won a plethora of awards, including the Sophie Prize (presented by Jostein Gaarder, author of the philosophical novel Sophie's World), and the Petra Kelly prize, given by the Heinrich Boll Foundation this year.

Despite the international acclaim, the previous Kenyan president, Daniel Arap Moi, was infuriated by her environmental work. In 1987, she founded the country's first Green Party and, in 1989, she forced the government to abandon plans to build a skyscraper to house party headquarters on public land. She had so many death threats that she fled to Tanzania with her three children for a few months.

But as soon as she returned, she started campaigning again, and accused members of the Kenyan government of destroying protected forests to grow marijuana, and selling illegally logged trees. In the early 1990s, she and a group of women protesting against the Moi government's torture of political prisoners, established Freedom's Corner in a Nairobi park. Women would gather at the spot for protests and hunger strikes, but were often dispersed by truncheon-wielding police. The Moi regime eventually took revenge. Ms Maathai was arrested and became the focus of an Amnesty International letter-writing campaign. In 1992, she was beaten unconscious by police during a hunger strike and in 1999, she was attacked again while trying to plant saplings to replace trees felled by property developers. The developers' security guards were believed to be responsible but no action was taken.

At that time, few Kenyan men would let her forget she was a woman taking on roles traditionally held by males. Mr Moi branded her a "madwoman" and a pro-government women's group complained she was "unAfrican" in the way she argued with men. Her husband divorced her in the 1980s, saying she was "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control".

But despite the vitriol, Ms Maathai refused to step out of the political arena. She tried to run for president in 1997, but her candidacy was cancelled on a technicality. She ran for parliament again in 2002, and won more than 98 per cent of the vote in her home town, in an election that removed the Moi administration and replaced it with a gentler, more inclusive government run by Mwai Kibaki. Ms Maathai and seven other women won seats in Parliament, and Mr Kibaki immediately made her deputy minister for the environment. And there is a delicious irony for Ms Maathai. News of her award is likely to drown any celebration of the Moi Day public holiday on Monday. Mr Moi, who still holds a respected place in Kenyan political life, was forced to abandon plans for a £140,000 celebration on Monday, after public protests at the cost. News of Ms Maathai's £750,000 award will dominate the day the former president set aside for himself.

In Oslo, Ms Maathai beat a record 194 nominations, including the former chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix and Mohamed El Baradei, head of the UN energy watchdog. Mr El Baradei was the clear favourite for his work in stemming the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The decision has drawn some criticism, with Morten Hoeglund, a member of Norway's Progress Party, saying the committee should have focused on more important matters, such as weapons of mass destruction.

But the Nobel prize committee said in 2001 that it wanted to widen the scope of the award and recognise people who had done important work outside the traditional field of diplomacy. The committee chairman, Ole Danbolt Mjoes, said: "We have added a new dimension to peace. We want to work for a better life-environment in Africa. Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment."

Ms Maathai's award is also a tremendous boost for the Kenyan government, which has recently been accused of becoming as corrupt as the former regime. It is accused of having mismanaged public funds, and awarded contracts to shadowy companies that have not delivered. A government spokesman, Alfred Mutata was quick to issue a statement, saying: "We are very happy. It sets an example that if you put your energy into the right places you are eventually recognised and that it leads to a better world."

The Iranian government dismissed the Nobel peace prize as "not important" after the political-rights activist, Shirin Ebadi, won the award last year. Ms Maathai's relationship with the present Kenyan government has not been easy. The forest clearances have continued, and many of President Kibaki's ministers still believe land should be cleared for luxury housing. Ms Maathai has threatened to quit the government several times but has so far stayed on.

"Wangari Maathai brings out the best of Kenya," a spokesman from an anti-corruption pressure group said. "We are glad she is there, and has been honoured, because now she can officially act as the conscience of this government as well as the rest of the world."

Ms Maathai said: "Many wars are fought over natural resources. In managing our resources ... we plant the seeds of peace, now and in the future."

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