Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai has spent a lifetime coming in ahead of the pack, either academically or in her prescient warnings about ecological damage. She was the first Kenyan woman to earn a doctorate. Her first husband left her because she was too educated and too strong willed. She even became one of the first activists to be imprisoned by then-President Arap Moi for leading a successful effort to stop the construction of a skyscraper on a public park. Nevertheless, even Dr. Maathai was surprised when she became the first African woman ever to be awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
The environmental activist celebrated the news with a simple gesture: she dug a small hole with her fingers and planted a sprout of the Nandi Flame tree in the town of Nyeri, her birthplace.
"I was shaking and crying and I looked at the mountain -- this mountain that has inspired me for many years," Maathai told journalists. "I particularly liked the fact that the news reached me here in Nyeri, at home in front of Mount Kenya."
The professor of veterinary anatomy and current Kenyan Parliament Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources, and Wildlife has been planting trees for over three decades. While media attention to AIDS, war, and famine have made those words synonymous with Africa, the equally catastrophic problems of deforestation and soil erosion have quietly become pressing concerns on the continent.
In her battle to halt the gradual destruction of Kenyas forests and waterways, Maathai fought courtroom battles against former president Arap-Moi's KANU administration. The KANU regime, voted out of power in 2002, openly supported the clearing of Kenyas forests, thereby weakening the countrys delicate ecosystem and disturbing the vital safari tourism industry. To counter the problem, Maathai launched the Green Belt Movement, an organization that has planted more than 30 million new trees, inspiring similar initiatives in neighboring countries through a Pan African Green Belt Network. Her environmental work has been awarded by the United Nations, the Better World Society, and the Woman of the Year Awards, but Maathai says that the Nobel Peace victory is especially meaningful.
"This is the epitome. It cannot get any better than this, maybe in heaven," she told reporters after the announcement. "I thought it was a joke! I want to commend the committee on being the biggest secret-keepers. I had no clue."
Maathai's award includes an honorarium of 10 million Swedish crowns (approximately $1.3 million) - money that she has pledged to her tireless crusade.
"Some of it will definitely go towards the environmental programs," Maathai told Reuters. "I have to make a budget and think about the things I will do."
While the news sent a surge of excitement and pride throughout the environmentalist community, some in the Norway-based Nobel Committee began murmuring about awarding the Peace Prize to an environmentalist. Previous winners included South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama and Mother Theresa. Was the committee expanding the definition of peace?
Norway's most influential newspaper, Aftenposten, echoed the queries by asking "what does tree planting have to do with peace?" The newspaper suggested that the answer could be found in Africa, the Amazon, Haiti, and China, where deforestation and climate changes have disturbed agricultural patterns for millions of people, leading to hunger and tensions between the underserved populations and their governments.
Despite Maathai's activism, even Kenya continues to face imminent dangers from deforestation. In response to a recent downturn in the coffee growing economy, farmers have cleared tracts of forest to plant marijuana for the international drug market.