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African Ecologist & Activist Wangari Maathai Awarded 2004 Nobel Peace Prize

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Wangari Maathai is the first African woman and first environmentalist to receive the prestigious award. We’ll hear an excerpt from her acceptance speech delivered today on International Human Rights Day. [includes rush transcript]

Today is International Human Rights Day. Every year on December 10, people around the world commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

And in Oslo today Kenyan ecologist Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2004.

She is the first African woman and first environmentalist to receive the prestigious award.

Wangari Maathai rose to international fame for campaigns against government-backed forest clearances in Kenya in the late 1980s and 1990s.

She once said of the forest clearances “It’s a matter of life and death for this country. The Kenyan forests are facing extinction and it is a man-made problem.”

In 1992 riot police clubbed her and three other women unconscious in central Nairobi during a demonstration. She has been tear gassed, threatened with death by anonymous callers, and once thrown into jail overnight for leading protests.

The Nobel Prize Committee honored Maathai today for her campaign to save Africa’s forests and for standing at the “front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa.”

At her acceptance speech today Maathai called on people around the world to plant trees at Easter as a symbol of renewal and to protect the planet.

  • Wangari Maathai, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner speaking in Oslo.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: This is Wangari Maathai speaking today in Oslo.

WANGARI MAATHAI: 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. I am especially mindful of women and girl-child. I hope to encourage them to raise their voices and take more space for leadership. I know the honor also gives a deep sense of pride to our men, both old and young. As a mother, I appreciate the inspiration this brings to the youth and I urge them to use it to pursue their dreams. 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. To all who feel represented by this prize I say use it to advance your mission and meet with the high expectations the world will place on all of us. This honor is also for my family, friends, partners and supporters throughout the world. All of them helped shape the vision and sustain the work which was often accomplished under hostile conditions. I’m also grateful to the people of Kenya who remained stubbornly hopeful that democracy could be realized and the environment managed sustainably. Because of this support I’m here today to accept this great honor. I am immensely privileged to join my fellow African Peace Laureates, President Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the late Chief Albert Lutuli, the late Anwar al-Sadat and the U.N. 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 to reduce conflicts and poverty and thereby improve the quality of life of 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’m profoundly grateful. Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come. Our work for over the past 30 years has always appreciated and engaged these linkages. My inspiration partly comes from my childhood experiences and observations of nature in rural Kenya. It has been influenced and nurtured by the formal education I was privileged to receive in Kenya, the United States of America and Germany. 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. Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, 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. As a result, they are often the first to become aware of environmental damage as resources become scarce and incapable of sustaining their families. The women we worked with recounted that unlike in the past they were unable to meet their basic needs. This was due to the degradation of the immediate environment, as well as the introduction of commercial farming which replaced the growing of household food crops, but international trade controlled the price of exports from these small scale farmers and a reasonable and just income could not be guaranteed. 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 the 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 own personal actions and the problems they witness in the environment and in society.

AMY GOODMAN: Wangari Maathai, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize today in Oslo.

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