Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai: Connecting Trees, Civic Education, and Peace

By Ahmad, Iftikhar | Social Education, January-February 2005 | Go to article overview

Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai: Connecting Trees, Civic Education, and Peace


Ahmad, Iftikhar, Social Education


IN 2004, the Norwegian Nobel Committee departed from its time-honored tradition of awarding its prestigious peace prize to an individual dedicated to ending armed conflict. Instead, the Nobel Committee re-interpreted the 1895 will of Swedish philanthropist Alfred Nobel--who founded the acclaimed prize--and, to the delight of many environmentalists, the Nobel Committee expanded its definition of 'peace.' For the first time in its history the committee recognized environmental preservation, community empowerment, and democratic governance as central elements in the promotion of peace and human rights. The committee noted that forests are a natural resource that sustain life in Africa, and that deforestation leads to poverty, ethnic conflicts, and needless human suffering. Hence, the Nobel Committee selected a Kenyan environmental activist, Wangari Maathai, as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

For the 2004 peace award, the Nobel Committee had received 194 nominations, including many prominent names such as Mohammed El Baradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency of the United Nations. Yet, the committee selected Wangari Maathai, the founder of the Green Belt Movement, a voluntary organization dedicated to environmental preservation, women's rights, and community development. In explaining why it had selected Maathai, the Nobel Committee offered four reasons. (1) First, Maathai had mobilized poor rural women in Kenya to improve their living conditions through an extensive campaign of tree plantation. Second, she combined science, social "Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment. Maathai stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa. She has taken a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women's rights in particular. She thinks globally and acts locally."

commitment, and active politics for sustainable development. Third, for many years, in spite of the oppressive methods of various regimes in Kenya, Maathai had struggled for social justice and led women volunteers in planting more than 30 million trees. And finally, the committee stated its admiration for Maathai's activism and unique form of action which had drawn national and international attention to political oppression in her country. (2)

During the past two decades, Maathai has won numerous high-status local and international awards for her immense contribution to social causes in Africa, including the Jane Addams Leadership award, the UN Africa Award for Leadership, the Woman of the Year Award, and the Global 500 Award of the United Nations Environment Program. (3) Indeed, she has been a source of inspiration to environmentalists, feminists, and human rights activists around the world and is being profiled in more than a dozen book chapters, films, and documentaries on the environment and community action. Maathai is the sixth person from the African continent and the first African woman to win the peace prize. (4)

Maathai's Life and Mission

The daughter of a peasant farmer, Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya, in 1940. The town of Nyeri is located in a valley near Mount Kenya, the highest peak in the country. Maathai recounts that her love of trees began quite early, and as a child she loved a huge wild fig tree. To many Africans, fig trees symbolize the sacred mountains, nature, and God. (5)

In the early 1960s, Maathai won a scholarship through the Catholic bishop of Nyeri to study biology and liberal arts at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas. In 1966, she earned a Master of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh. She subsequently returned home and joined the doctoral program in veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi. In 1971, she was granted a Ph.D. She was the first black African woman in Eastern and Central Africa to earn a doctorate and to be appointed as a professor at the University of Nairobi.

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