Educate, Agitate, Organize

compiled by Jessica Maxwell

Celebrating International Women’s Day (March 8) with Wangari Maathai
Wangari Matthai

Wangari Maathai is the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize. In describing the connection between environmentalism and peace, Maathai says that almost all wars are conflicts over resources.

Maathai worked in the context of an authoritarian government as she fought against powerful business and political interests, yet was undaunted by arrests and beatings. Time in the US during the 1960s prepared her, she comments, to work against injustice in her own land. Listening to grassroots women led her to begin the Green Belt Movement and the eventual planting of over 30 million trees by low-income women in local chapters.

The Nobel Committee wrote, “Maathai stood up courageously…and her unique forms of action have continued to draw attention to political oppression nationally and internationally. She has taken a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular.”

She remains a model of perseverance and hope for all of us as we celebrate her contributions on International Women’s Day.
-Donna Muhs-McCarten


Wangari Maathai’s Statement on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize

October 10, 2004
I would like to thank the Nobel Committee for the unparalleled honour of being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2004. By making this award, the Nobel Committee has placed the critical issues of environmental conservation, democratic governance and community empowerment and peace before the eyes of the world, and for that I am profoundly grateful. The 30 million trees planted by Green Belt Movement volunteers — mostly rural women —throughout Kenya over the past 30 years are a testament to individuals’ ability to change the course of environmental history.

Working together, we have proven that sustainable development is possible; that reforestation of degraded land is possible; and that exemplary governance is possible when ordinary citizens are informed, sensitised, mobilized and involved in direct action for their environment.

This is a great day for Kenya and especially for members of the Green Belt Movement and the global green movement. It is also a wonderful opportunity to help inspire the nations of the world toward the goals of environmental sustainability, human rights, gender equality and peace. On behalf of all African women, I want to express my profound appreciation for this honour, which will serve to encourage women in Kenya, in Africa and around the world to raise their voices and not to be deterred.

I also want to thank the press here in Kenya and around the world for walking with us in bad and good times.

After 30 years of struggle to renew Kenya’s natural resources and instill a sense of responsibility and ownership at the grassroots level, this elevation to the august company of Nobel laureates like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Shireen Ebadi is a totally unexpected and gratifying validation.

Some people have asked what the relationship is between peace and environment, and to them I say that many wars are fought over resources, which are becoming increasingly scarce across the earth. If we did a better job of managing our resources sustainably, conflicts over them would be reduced. So, protecting the global environment is directly related to securing peace.

Many people have asked me through the years of struggle how I have kept going, how I have continued even when my ideas and my work were challenged or even ignored. Those of us who understand the complex concept of the environment have the burden to act. We must not tire, we must not give up, we must persist.

I would like to call on young people, in particular, to take inspiration from this prize. Despite all the constraints that they face, there is hope in the future in serving the common good. What my experiences have taught me is that service to others has its own special rewards.

When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope. We also secure the future for our children. One of the first things I did yesterday when I got the extraordinary news about this prize was to plant a Nandi flame tree. It was at the foot of Mt. Kenya, which has been a source of inspiration to me and to generations before me.

So, on this wonderful occasion, I call on all Kenyans and those around the world to celebrate by planting a tree wherever you are. Once again, I want to thank members of the press, members of the Green Belt Movement, friends who have been with me all along, and my three children, Waweru, Wanjira and Muta.

Thank you.