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Kenyan Environmental Activist Wins Nobel Peace Prize - 2004-10-08

Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai, who Wednesday became the first-ever African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, has worked for decades to protect Africa's dwindling forests.

Wangari Maathai says she was overcome with excitement after hearing that she'd won the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental activism in Africa.

The Nobel committee citation said Ms. Maathai is a strong voice speaking for the best forces in Africa to promote peace and good living conditions on the continent.

Ms. Maathai spoke to VOA by telephone from her home in Nyeri, near Mount Kenya.

"I feel excited," she said. "I was very happy and very appreciative of all the people who have walked this road with me."

It's been a difficult road for the 64-year-old Ms. Maathai, who launched Kenya's Green Belt Movement nearly 30 years ago. Her goal was to mobilize local communities to protect the country's dwindling forests, threatened by land developers, surges in population, and the harvesting of trees for cooking and charcoal-making. So far, the movement has planted about 30 million trees. In 1989, Ms. Maathai's activism drew the ire of former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, with whom she clashed over the right to erect a skyscraper and a six-story statue of himself in Uhuru Park, Nairobi's only green space.

Nearly a decade later, Ms. Maathai entered another fierce battle with Mr. Moi, who was backing another luxury housing project in Nairobi's pristine 1,000-hectare Karura Forest. During a protest to stop the bulldozers from clearing the land, Ms. Maathai suffered a head injury when nearly 200 men, allegedly hired by Mr. Moi, attacked the demonstrators with whips and clubs.

Ms. Maathai signed her written police complaint with blood from her wound.

But Ms. Maathai could not parlay her notoriety as an environmentalist into popularity at home. She ran for Kenya's presidency in 1997, but her party withdrew her candidacy days before the election. She also failed to win a parliament seat in that same election.

The 2002 landslide election victory for the National Rainbow Coalition ended Mr. Moi's 24-year rule. The new president, Mwai Kibaki, appointed Ms. Maathai as the Deputy Minister for Kenya's Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife. For the first time in her career, she was part of the government, not an agitator against it.

Ms. Maathai says there is a link between the preservation of the environment and the preservation of human rights.

"It is recognized that management of natural resources is very, very important in the promotion of peace, and that many wars that we witness in the world today are over the natural resources," said Wangari Maathai. "Without a properly managed environment our own lives are threatened."

Now, Ms. Maathai says, she has to decide how to best use the money from the prize to help the environment.