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Kenyan Environmental Activist Wins Nobel Peace Prize

Kenya's Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She was honored for her contribution towards sustainable development, peace and democracy.

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"When our resources become scarce, we fight over that"

Wangari Maathai, 64, Kenyan deputy Environment Minister, is the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and the seventh African since it was first awarded in1901.

Previous winners from Africa include UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan, who shared the prize with the UN in 2001, and Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk from South Africa in 1993.

"Thank you so much, I am so surprised," Maathai told Norwegian state television on Friday after her victory was disclosed in Oslo. "I am absolutely overwhelmed and very emotionally charged, really. I did not expect this."

"An inspiration in Africa"

In its citation, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said Maathai had taken a holistic approach to sustainable development in Kenya and Africa that embraces democracy, human rights and women's rights in particular. "She thinks globally and acts locally," the committee said.

It also singled out Maathai's courageous stance against the former oppressive Kenyan regime, her grass-roots development project "The Green Belt Movement" that encompasses family planning, nutrition and the fight against corruption and her efforts in countering desertification.

"Her methods have been adopted by other countries as well. We are all witness to how deforestation and forest loss have led to desertification in Africa and threatened many other regions of the world - in Europe too. Protecting forests against desertification is a vital factor in the struggle to strengthen the living environment of our common Earth," the committee said. "She represents an example and a source of inspiration for everyone in Africa fighting for sustainable development, democracy and peace."

More than 25 million trees planted

Born in April 1940, Maathai was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. She studied in the US, in Kansas and Pittsburgh.

Maathai, who earned the nickname "Mama Mici" or mother of trees, began to mobilize and convince women to plant trees in around the Kenyan capital of Nairobi at the end of the 1970s. The forests in the area were ravaged after large-scale logging and cutting down of trees to gain firewood for cooking.

Her "Green Belt Movement" was a tremendous success, with the group planting more than 25 million trees to date across Africa. Maathai and her "Green Belt Movement" have won numerous international awards and her environmental work has been emulated in several other African countries.

Fight for democratic rights

But, even beyond her efforts to preserve the environment, Maathai has been tireless in her fight for democratic and social rights. She has also founded a pan-African women's movement.

She has often crossed paths with Kenya's former repressive regime for her convictions and her support for freedom of expression for opposition groups. Persecuted and arrested half a dozen times, Maathai was even roughed up by security forces.

In December 2002, Maathai tasted her first political success when a rainbow coalition of opposition parties unseated the government of Daniel arap Moi. Maathai was elected to the parliament and named deputy environment minister by President Mwai Kibaki.

On Friday, Maathai underlined the importance of her work. "The environment is very important in the aspects of peace because when we destroy our resources and our resources become scarce, we fight over that," she told Norwegian television.

Germany welcomes honor for Maathai

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Maathai on Friday has been hailed in Germany by politicians, particularly of the Green party.

German President Horst Köhler wrote a telegram congratulating her "decade-long engagement in preserving an intact environment" and her fight to uphold human rights in Africa. "Life in a healthy environment is one of the most basic human rights. Her fight for it has earned my deepest respect," Köhler wrote.

Pressekonferenz Joschka Fischer Irak

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany's Green party said he was "especially happy" because Maathai's efforts to protect the environment had been recognized. Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin described Matthai as a "internationally-recognized brilliant environmentalist" who had "decisively improved the conditions for peace in the 21st century."

Uschi Eid, Germany's Federal Commissioner for Africa in the Development Ministry, said Maathai "is a symbol and a model for the women in Africa who advocate preserving nature, maintaining peace and upholding equality."

Deputy General Secretary of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), Dorothea Rüland, said she welcomed the fact that "such a committed and brave woman" had won the prize. Maathai won a DAAD scholarship in 1978.

The Nobel Peace Prize includes 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.3 million) and is named after Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel. The peace prize is awarded in Oslo.

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