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Nobel Prize Laureate Links Environment to Peace

The winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, is in New York to call attention to her message linking environmental protection and peace.

Ms. Maathai says the Nobel Peace Prize will give greater legitimacy to environmentalists across the globe and help her Green Belt movement overcome obstacles.

"Now with the Nobel Peace Prize, we feel that many people will be willing to support us, including governments, which have a lot of resources, and also many civil society organizations, which would have been afraid in the past will now be able to embrace this approach and I hope we can do a lot of good not only in Kenya, but also in Africa and, indeed, beyond," she said.

Ms. Maathai was educated in the United States in the 1960s, during the era of the civil rights movement. The experience, she says, encouraged her to go home and do something positive for the people of Kenya. In the late 1970s, Ms. Maathai began the Green Belt movement to help poor women in rural communities meet their most basic needs.

"The women had identified such needs as the need for firewood, which is the main source of energy in the rural areas, the need for food, the need for clean drinking water, the need for building materials," she explained. "As you can see, all of those are fruits of the land. At that time also there was soil erosion because of deforestation of the upstream, especially up on the mountains. So I got this idea almost in passing that if we planted the trees we would be able to address some of these needs that the women had and we would be able to stabilize the soil. We started that way, but eventually it moved to other areas. It moved to issues of democracy, issues of human rights, women's rights, issues of peace. But initially it was a very basic activity of meeting the needs of rural women."

The Green Belt movement has planted millions trees in Kenya and across Africa. Along the way, the movement's mission expanded as Ms. Maathai concluded that environmental protection is inextricably linked to good governance.

In awarding the Peace Prize to Ms. Maathai, the Nobel Committee cited her courageous stand against Kenya's former oppressive government, saying she has served as an inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights and has especially encouraged women to improve their situation. She says it was not her intention to become involved in politics.

"It became obvious to me in the course of our work that it is important to have good governance," she added. "Otherwise, you will be reconstructing and the people who are managing the state will be destroying. That is the way eventually the movement became part of the pro-democracy movement in Kenya."

Ms. Maathai currently serves as deputy environment minister.

Her selection as Nobel Laureate has met with some controversy. Critics question the Nobel Committee's choice of an environmentalist for the Peace Prize, which frequently is given to world leaders. But Ms. Maathai thinks the Committee wanted to send a clear signal recognizing the link between sustainable development, natural resources and conflict.

"What the Norwegian Nobel Peace Committee is emphasizing and wants the world to focus on is to bring the environment and, especially the management of resources to the center stage, and to invest in areas where we can prevent conflict over them," she said.

Wangari Maathai is the first African woman ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She says the challenge ahead is to turn the experience she has gained into laws that insure the protection of the environment for the future.