This is cool. From the Washington Post:
Friday’s announcement, by the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee, makes her the first African woman to receive the $1.3 million prize, which is generally regarded as the world’s highest tribute. It was the second straight year that a woman had won the peace prize. Last year, Shirin Ebadi, a lawyer in Iran, was recognized for her work promoting the rights of women and children. [...]
While Maathai has not been widely known to the general public, she is a legend among global environmental activists and feminist leaders alike, and a presence at international environmental conferences. She has been described variously as an “ecofeminist,” “ecowomanist” and “Kenya’s Green Militant.”
The impetus for Maathai’s movement was deforestation in Kenya, a process that has taken 90 percent of the country’s forest over the past 50 years. One of the consequences Maathai saw was that women and girls had to spend hours every day searching for wood for cooking fuel.
In 1978, Maathai, then a U.S.-educated college professor at the University of Nairobi, suggested the planting of trees as a way to help rural women survive the decrease of firewood. The movement spread across Africa, and was responsible for planting over 30 million trees. She expanded it to embrace human rights, women’s rights and the politics of democracy.
In 1989, the deep-voiced and statuesque Maathai led a one-woman charge against the autocratic government of Daniel arap Moi, the former president, when he wanted to build a skyscraper and six-story statue of himself in gritty Nairobi’s only public green space.
She lost her case in court. But because of her protest no financiers were willing to work on the project. Today, that area of the park is called “Freedom Corner.”
From time to time she has been intimidated and even beaten by police in the course of her protests. She was hospitalized in Kenya in 1999 after being clubbed by guards hired by developers while she and her followers tried to plant trees in Karura forest.
From a PeopleAndPlanet.net profile:
Instead, she plays them at their own game: “Last time, I told another MP: ‘I’m sick and tired of men who are so incompetent that every time they feel the heat because women are challenging them, they have to check their genitalia to reassure themselves. I’m not interested in that part of the anatomy. The issues I’m dealing with require the utilisation of what’s above the neck. If you don’t have anything there, leave me alone.’ He didn’t say another word.”
Here’s a link to a speech by Ms. Maathai, which outlines her views on the problems Africa faces today. Among many other things, she makes an interesting criticism of Western aid:
For example, most foreign aid to Africa comes in form of curative social welfare programmes such as famine relief, food aid, population control programmes, refugee camps, peace-keeping forces and humanitarian missions. At the same time, hardly available are resources for preventive and sustainable human development programmes such as functional education and training, development of infrastructure, institutional and capacity building, food production and processing, the promotion of creative innovations and entrepreneurship. There are no funds for development of their own cultural, spiritual and social programmes which would empower people and release their creative energy. Such programmes find few sympathizers.
In the current scenario therefore, development programmes which receive enthusiastic support are those which generate much wealth for the international communities even as they put Africans into more debt.
Curiously, Ms. Maathai recieved the Right Livelihood Award, aka “the alternative Nobel Prize,” 20 years ago. So perhaps the Nobel people are beginning to catch up.
She’s also a bit of a conspiracy theorist about AIDS. Oh, well.