Planting the seeds of peace in Africa

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The Independent Online

The Nobel Peace Prize has traditionally produced two types of winner. There are famous figures, usually statesmen, whose efforts have resulted in historic resolutions of old conflicts. Then there are the little known human rights activists, for whom the award represents the recognition of a lifetime's work. The Nobel committee's decision to award the 2004 prize to Wangari Maathai is, therefore, something of a departure from tradition. It is the first time that the Nobel prize has gone to an environmental activist.

The 64-year-old Kenyan's work over the past three decades is, without doubt, worthy of recognition. In 1977, she established the Green Belt Movement with the aim of planting trees across Africa. It was intended to halt the deforestation of the continent. Just 2 per cent of Kenya's land was under forest cover when Ms Maathai began her campaign. Now some 30 million trees have been planted in farms, public lands and forests.

Some might question how planting trees can be classified as peace campaigning. But this is to adopt an unnecessarily narrow interpretation of the Green Belt Movement's work. Ms Maathai provided the best response to this when she spoke of her work yesterday. She told Norwegian radio: "In managing our resources, we plant the seeds of peace."

The conflicts in a number of African states, most notoriously Sudan, are influenced by the scarcity of natural resources. Planting trees is peace work. And Ms Maathai's work focuses on those who rely on the trees. The forests she has helped restore are a source of fuel, building material and food for local people. By planting trees, Ms Maathai is fighting poverty and its associated ills. Also, her efforts to tackle climate change put many Western governments to shame. Each tree she plants absorbs some of the greenhouse gasses that are doing such damage to the earth's environmental balance. The African continent, with its large agricultural economy, is especially at risk from the famine and flooding that are a result of climate change.

Perhaps the most important reason for welcoming Ms Maathai's victory is because it shows what Africans can achieve independently from the rest of the world. Too often, the people of this continent are treated as passive observers whose fate must be decided thousands of miles away. Ms Maathai's courage shows that local activists are vital. It is something Mr Blair's Commission for Africa would do well to note.