The Associated Press
October 8, 2004, 6:10 AM EDT
OSLO, Norway -- Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai won the Nobel
Peace Prize on Friday for her work as leader of the Green Belt Movement,
which has sought to empower women, improve the environment and fight
corruption in Africa for almost 30 years.
Maathai, Kenya's deputy environment minister, is the first African woman to
win the prize, first awarded in 1901. She gained recent acclaim for a
campaign planting 30 million tress to stave off deforestation.
"We believe that Maathai is a strong voice speaking for the best forces in
Africa to promote peace and good living conditions on that continent," the
Nobel committee said in its citation.
With a record 194 nominations, the committee had a broad field to choose
from, and speculation had focused on other candidates. Many observers had
wondered if the committee would try to send a message about Iraq, as it did
in 2002, when members said the choice of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter
should be seen as criticism of the Bush administration's move to topple
The choice of Maathai was a clear answer that it would eschew politics this
"I am absolutely overwhelmed and very emotionally charged, really," Maathai
told Norwegian state television. "I did not expect this."
It was the first time the prize recognized work to preserve the environment.
During the 2001 centennial anniversary of the prize, the committee said it
wanted to widen the scope of the award, including honoring those who worked
to improve the environment, as well as contributed to advancing peace
"This is the first time environment sets the agenda for the Nobel Peace
Prize, and we have added a new dimension to peace. We want to work for a
better life environment in Africa," said committee chairman Ole Danbolt
Maathai, 64, is believed to have been the first woman in East and Central
Africa to earn a doctorate. She got a degree in biological sciences from
Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kan., in 1964.
Previous winners from Africa include U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who
shared the prize with the United Nations in 2001, and Nelson Mandela and
F.W. de Klerk, South Africa, in 1993.
"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,"
Maathai said, fighting back tears. "I am working to make sure we don't only
protect the environment, we also improve governance."
Maathai has also been praised for standing up to Kenya's former government,
led by President Daniel arap Moi for 24 years until he stepped down after
elections in 2002.
The award, which includes $1.3 million, is always presented on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of its founder, Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel.
The peace prize is awarded in Oslo, and the other Nobel prizes are presented
in the Swedish capital, Stockholm.
"Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment,"
Maathai's citation said. "Maathai stands at the front of the fight to
promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in
Kenya and in Africa."
Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 while head of the National
Council of Women of Kenya. She abandoned a promising academic career as a
biology professor to pursue her environment projects.
Morten Hoeglund, a member of Norway's Progress Party, criticized the award
to Maathai because there was more pressing issues like weapons of mass
destruction the Nobel Committee should focus on.
"Today we have problems with nuclear arms and technology gone astray. The
Nobel Committee should spend more resources on these matters instead," he
Indeed, oddsmakers and speculation had pointed to Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency as likely winners.
Last year's winner, Shirin Ebadi of Iran was similarly a dark horse.
This year's award announcements began Monday with the Nobel Prize in
physiology or medicine going to Americans Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck for
their work on the sense of smell. On Tuesday, Americans David J. Gross, H.
David Politzer and Frank Wilczek won the physics prize for their explanation
of the force that binds particles inside the atomic nucleus.
The chemistry prize was awarded Wednesday to Israelis Aaron Ciechanover and
Avram Hershko and American Irwin Rose for their work in discovering a
process that lets cells destroy unwanted proteins. On Thursday, Austrian
feminist writer Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize in literature on
The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel will
be announced Oct. 11.