Nobel Peace Prize for 2004:  Wangari Maathai - Trees for Democracy


Address by Professor Ole Danbolt Mjøs, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Oslo, December 10, 2004

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Peace Prize Laureate, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

"The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2004 to Wangari Maathai for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.

Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment. Maathai stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa. She has taken a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women's rights in particular. She thinks globally and acts locally." These are the opening sentences of the Committee's statement of its reasons for this year's Peace Prize award on the 8th of October.

Dr. Wangari Maathai -  

Nobel Lecture -  December 10, 2004

Wangari Maathai Nobel Lecture

Oslo, December 10, 2004

Your Majesties
Your Royal Highnesses
Honorable Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee
Ladies and Gentlemen

I stand before you and the world humbled by this recognition and uplifted by the honor of being the 2004 Nobel Peace  Laureate.

As the first African woman to receive this prize, I accept it on behalf of the people of Kenya and Africa, and indeed the world. I am especially mindful of women and the girl child. I hope it will encourage them to raise their voices and take more space for leadership. I know the honour also gives a deep sense of pride to our men, both old and young. As a mother, I appreciate the inspiration this brings to the youth and urge them to use it to pursue their dreams. Although this prize comes to me, it acknowledges the work of countless individuals and groups across the globe. They work quietly and often without recognition to protect the environment, promote democracy, defend human rights and ensure equality between women and men. By so doing, they plant seeds of peace. I know they, too, are proud today. To all who feel represented by this prize I say use it to advance your mission and meet the high expectations the world will place on us.

This honour is also for my family, friends, partners and supporters throughout the world. All of them helped shape the vision and sustain our work, which was often accomplished under hostile conditions. I am also grateful to the people of Kenya - who remained stubbornly hopeful that democracy could be realized and their environment managed sustainably. Because of this support, I am here today to accept this great honour.

I am immensely privileged to join my fellow African Peace laureates, Presidents Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the late Chief Albert Luthuli, the late Anwar el-Sadat and the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan.

I know that African people everywhere are encouraged by this news. My fellow Africans, as we embrace this recognition, let us use it to intensify our commitment to our people, to reduce conflicts and poverty and thereby improve their quality of life. Let us embrace democratic governance, protect human rights and protect our environment. I am confident that we shall rise to the occasion. I have always believed that solutions to most of our problems must come from us.

In this year’s prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has placed the critical issue of environment and its linkage to democracy and peace before the world. For their visionary action, I am profoundly grateful. Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come. Our work over the past 30 years has always appreciated and engaged these linkages.

My inspiration partly comes from my childhood experiences and observations of Nature in rural Kenya. It has been influenced and nurtured by the formal education I was privileged to receive in Kenya, the United States and Germany. As I was growing up, I witnessed forests being cleared and replaced by commercial plantations, which destroyed local biodiversity and the capacity of the forests to conserve water.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
In 1977, when we started the Green Belt Movement, I was partly responding to needs identified by rural women, namely lack of firewood, clean drinking water, balanced diets, shelter and income.

Throughout Africa, women are the primary caretakers, holding significant responsibility for tilling the land and feeding their families. As a result, they are often the first to become aware of environmental damage as resources become scarce and incapable of sustaining their families. The women we worked with recounted that unlike in the past, they were unable to meet their basic needs. This was due to the degradation of their immediate environment as well as the introduction of commercial farming, which replaced the growing of household food crops. But international trade controlled the price of the exports from these small-scale farmers and a reasonable and just income could not be guaranteed. I came to understand that when the environment is destroyed, plundered or mismanaged, we undermine our quality of life and that of future generations.

Tree planting became a natural choice to address some of the initial basic needs identified by women. Also, tree planting is simple, attainable and guarantees quick, successful results within a reasonable amount time. This sustains interest and commitment.

So, together, we have planted over 30 million trees that provide fuel, food, shelter, and income to support their children’s education and household needs. The activity also creates employment and improves soils and watersheds. Through their involvement, women gain some degree of power over their lives, especially their social and economic position and relevance in the family. This work continues.

Initially, the work was difficult because historically our people have been persuaded to believe that because they are poor, they lack not only capital, but also knowledge and skills to address their challenges. Instead they are conditioned to believe that solutions to their problems must come from ‘outside’. Further, women did not realize that meeting their needs depended on their environment being healthy and well managed. They were also unaware that a degraded environment leads to a scramble for scarce resources and may culminate in poverty and even conflict. They were also unaware of the injustices of international economic arrangements.  In order to assist communities to understand these linkages, we developed a citizen education program, during which people identify their problems, the causes and possible solutions. They then make connections between their own personal actions and the problems they witness in the environment and in society. They learn that our world is confronted with a litany of woes:  corruption, violence against women and children, disruption and breakdown of families, and disintegration of cultures and communities. They also identify the abuse of drugs and chemical substances, especially among young people. There are also devastating diseases that are defying cures or occurring in epidemic proportions. Of particular concern are HIV/AIDS, malaria and diseases associated with malnutrition.

On the environment front, they are exposed to many human activities that are devastating to the environment and societies. These include widespread destruction of ecosystems, especially through deforestation, climatic instability, and contamination in the soils and waters that all contribute to excruciating poverty.

In the process, the participants discover that they must be part of the solutions. They realize their hidden potential and are empowered to overcome inertia and take action. They come to recognize that they are the primary custodians and beneficiaries of the environment that sustains them.

Entire communities also come to understand that while it is necessary to hold their governments accountable, it is equally important that in their own relationships with each other, they exemplify the leadership values they wish to see in their own leaders, namely justice, integrity and trust.  Although initially the Green Belt Movement’s tree planting activities did not address issues of democracy and peace, it soon became clear that responsible governance of the environment was impossible without democratic space. Therefore, the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya. Citizens were mobilised to challenge widespread abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement. In Nairobi ’s Uhuru Park, at Freedom Corner, and in many parts of the country, trees of peace were planted to demand the release of prisoners of conscience and a peaceful transition to democracy.

Through the Green Belt Movement, thousands of ordinary citizens were mobilized and empowered to take action and effect change. They learned to overcome fear and a sense of helplessness and moved to defend democratic rights.

In time, the tree also became a symbol for peace and conflict resolution, especially during ethnic conflicts in Kenya when the Green Belt Movement used peace trees to reconcile disputing communities. During the ongoing re-writing of the Kenyan constitution, similar trees of peace were planted in many parts of the country to promote a culture of peace. Using trees as a symbol of peace is in keeping with a widespread African tradition. For example, the elders of the Kikuyu carried a staff from the thigi tree that, when placed between two disputing sides, caused them to stop fighting and seek reconciliation. Many communities in Africa have these traditions.

Such practises are part of an extensive cultural heritage, which contributes both to the conservation of habitats and to cultures of peace. With the destruction of these cultures and the introduction of new values, local biodiversity is no longer valued or protected and as a result, it is quickly degraded and disappears. For this reason, The Green Belt Movement explores the concept of cultural biodiversity, especially with respect to indigenous seeds and medicinal plants.  As we progressively understood the causes of environmental degradation, we saw the need for good governance. Indeed, the state of any county’s environment is a reflection of the kind of governance in place, and without good governance there can be no peace. Many countries, which have poor governance systems, are also likely to have conflicts and poor laws protecting the environment.

In 2002, the courage, resilience, patience and commitment of members of the Green Belt Movement, other civil society organizations, and the Kenyan public culminated in the peaceful transition to a democratic government and laid the foundation for a more stable society.

Excellencies, friends, ladies and gentlemen,
It is 30 years since we started this work. Activities that devastate the environment and societies continue unabated. Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own – indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life, with which we have shared our evolutionary process.  In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other.

That time is now.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has challenged the world to broaden the understanding of peace: there can be no peace without equitable development; and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space. This shift is an idea whose time has come.

I call on leaders, especially from Africa, to expand democratic space and build fair and just societies that allow the creativity and energy of their citizens to flourish.

Those of us who have been privileged to receive education, skills, and experiences and even power must be role models for the next generation of leadership. In this regard, I would also like to appeal for the freedom of my fellow laureate Aung San Suu Kyi so that she can continue her work for peace and democracy for the people of Burma and the world at large.

Culture plays a central role in the political, economic and social life of communities. Indeed, culture may be the missing link in the development of Africa. Culture is dynamic and evolves over time, consciously discarding retrogressive traditions, like female genital mutilation (FGM), and embracing aspects that are good and useful.

Africans, especially, should re-discover positive aspects of their culture. In accepting them, they would give themselves a sense of belonging, identity and self-confidence.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
There is also need to galvanize civil society and grassroots movements to catalyse change. I call upon governments to recognize the role of these social movements in building a critical mass of responsible citizens, who help maintain checks and balances in society. On their part, civil society should embrace not only their rights but also their responsibilities.

Further, industry and global institutions must appreciate that ensuring economic justice, equity and ecological integrity are of greater value than profits at any cost.

The extreme global inequities and prevailing consumption patterns continue at the expense of the environment and peaceful co-existence. The choice is ours.

I would like to call on young people to commit themselves to activities that contribute toward achieving their long-term dreams. They have the energy and creativity to shape a sustainable future. To the young people I say, you are a gift to your communities and indeed the world. You are our hope and our future.

The holistic approach to development, as exemplified by the Green Belt Movement, could be embraced and replicated in more parts of Africa and beyond. It is for this reason that I have established the Wangari Maathai Foundation to ensure the continuation and expansion of these activities. Although a lot has been achieved, much remains to be done.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
As I conclude I reflect on my childhood experience when I would visit a stream next to our home to fetch water for my mother. I would drink water straight from the stream. Playing among the arrowroot leaves I tried in vain to pick up the strands of frogs’ eggs, believing they were beads.  But every time I put my little fingers under them they would break. Later, I saw thousands of tadpoles: black, energetic and wriggling through the clear water against the background of the brown earth. This is the world I inherited from my parents.

Today, over 50 years later, the stream has dried up, women walk long distances for water, which is not always clean, and children will never know what they have lost. The challenge is to restore the home of the tadpoles and give back to our children a world of beauty and wonder.  

Thank you very much.

Trees for Democracy   Maurice Schwartz
  Dec 10, 2004 09:21 PST 


Imagine, a Nobel Peace Prize for planting Trees for the sake of
people and for the sake of the natural environment! The New York
Times published an Op-Ed written by the recipient of the prize. It's
a great read.


-----Original Message-----
Subject: Article: Op-Ed Contributor: Trees for Democracy
Date: Fri, 10 Dec 2004 11:30:45 -0500 (EST)

Op-Ed Contributor: Trees for Democracy

December 10, 2004


Nairobi, Kenya

WHEN I was growing up in Nyeri in central Kenya, there was
no word for desert in my mother tongue, Kikuyu. Our land
was fertile and forested. But today in Nyeri, as in much of
Africa and the developing world, water sources have dried
up, the soil is parched and unsuitable for growing food,
and conflicts over land are common. So it should come as no
surprise that I was inspired to plant trees to help meet
the basic needs of rural women. As a member of the National
Council of Women of Kenya in the early 1970's, I listened
as women related what they wanted but did not have enough
of: energy, clean drinking water and nutritious food.

My response was to begin planting trees with them, to help
heal the land and break the cycle of poverty. Trees stop
soil erosion, leading to water conservation and increased
rainfall. Trees provide fuel, material for building and
fencing, fruits, fodder, shade and beauty. As household
managers in rural and urban areas of the developing world,
women are the first to encounter the effects of ecological
stress. It forces them to walk farther to get wood for
cooking and heating, to search for clean water and to find
new sources of food as old ones disappear.

My idea evolved into the Green Belt Movement, made up of
thousands of groups, primarily of women, who have planted
30 million trees across Kenya. The women are paid a small
amount for each seedling they grow, giving them an income
as well as improving their environment. The movement has
spread to countries in East and Central Africa.

Through this work, I came to see that environmental
degradation by poor communities was both a source of their
problems and a symptom. Growing crops on steep mountain
slopes leads to loss of topsoil and land deterioration.
Similarly, deforestation causes rivers to dry up and
rainfall patterns to shift, which, in turn, result in much
lower crop yields and less land for grazing.

In the 1970's and 1980's, as I was encouraging farmers to
plant trees on their land, I also discovered that corrupt
government agents were responsible for much of the
deforestation by illegally selling off land and trees to
well-connected developers. In the early 1990's, the
livelihoods, the rights and even the lives of many Kenyans
in the Rift Valley were lost when elements of President
Daniel arap Moi's government encouraged ethnic communities
to attack one another over land. Supporters of the ruling
party got the land, while those in the pro-democracy
movement were displaced. This was one of the government's
ways of retaining power; if communities were kept busy
fighting over land, they would have less opportunity to
demand democracy.

Land issues in Kenya are complex and easily exploited by
politicians. Communities needed to understand and be
sensitized about the history of land ownership and
distribution in Kenya and Africa. We held seminars on human
rights, governing and reducing conflict.

In time, the Green Belt Movement became a leading advocate
of reintroducing multiparty democracy and free and fair
elections in Kenya. Through public education, political
advocacy and protests, we also sought to protect open
spaces and forests from unscrupulous developers, who were
often working hand in hand with politicians, through public
education, political advocacy and protests. Mr. Moi's
government strongly opposed advocates for democracy and
environmental rights; harassment, beatings, death threats
and jail time followed, for me and for many others.

Fortunately, in 2002, Kenyans realized their dream and
elected a democratic government. What we've learned in
Kenya - the symbiotic relationship between the sustainable
management of natural resources and democratic governance -
is also relevant globally.

Indeed, many local and international wars, like those in
West and Central Africa and the Middle East, continue to be
fought over resources. In the process, human rights,
democracy and democratic space are denied.

I believe the Nobel Committee recognized the links between
the environment, democracy and peace and sought to bring
them to worldwide attention with the Peace Prize that I am
accepting today. The committee, I believe, is seeking to
encourage community efforts to restore the earth at a time
when we face the ecological crises of deforestation,
desertification, water scarcity and a lack of biological

Unless we properly manage resources like forests, water,
land, minerals and oil, we will not win the fight against
poverty. And there will not be peace. Old conflicts will
rage on and new resource wars will erupt unless we change
the path we are on.

To celebrate this award, and the work it recognizes of
those around the world, let me recall the words of Gandhi:
My life is my message. Also, plant a tree.

Wangari Maathai, the 2004 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize,
is Kenya's assistant minister for environment and natural
resources and the founder of the Green Belt Movement.

For general information about, write to

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
Re: Trees for Democracy   Edward Frank
  Dec 10, 2004 17:44 PST 

Some biographical inforamtion about the Nobel Prize winning author and
founder of the Greeenbelt Movement:

Wangari Muta Maathai, PhD, EBS
Date of birth: April 1, 1940
Nationality: Kenyan
Family: Three children (Waweru, Wanjira and Muta)

PhD, Anatomy, University of Nairobi (1971)
MS, Biological Sciences, University of Pittsburgh (1966)
BS, Biology, Mount St. Scholastica College, USA (1964)

Personal Achievements
Director, Kenya Red Cross (1973-1980)
Founder and Coordinator, The Green Belt Movement (1977-2002)
Founding member, GROOTS International (1985)
Member of Parliament, Tetu Constituency, Republic of Kenya (2002-Present)
Assistant Minister, Environment, Natural Resources & Wildlife, Republic of
Kenya (2003-Present)

Academic Appointments
Chair, Department of Veterinary Anatomy, University of Nairobi (1976)
Assoc. Professor, Department of Veterinary Anatomy, University of Nairobi
Endowed Chair in Gender & Women’s Studies named “Fuller-Maathai”,
Connecticut College (2000)
Montgomery Fellow, Dartmouth College, USA (2001)
Dorothy McCluskey Visiting Fellow for Conservation, Yale University, USA

Professional Affiliations
Member, United Nations Advisory Board on Disarmament, USA
Member, UN Commission on Global Governance, USA
Member, Advisory Board, Democracy Coalition Project, USA
Member, Earth Charter Commission, USA
Selection Committee, Sasakawa Environmental Prize, UNEP, KENYA
Board Member, Women and Environment Development Organization (WEDO), USA
Board Member, World Learning for International Development, USA
Board Member, Green Cross International
Board Member, Environment Liaison Center International, KENYA
Board Member, the WorldWIDE Network of Women in Environmental Work, USA
Board Member, National Council of Women of Kenya., KENYA

Honorary Degrees

Doctor of Humane Letters, Yale University (2004)
Doctor of Agriculture, University of Norway (1997)
Doctor of Science, Hobart & William Smith Colleges (1994)
Doctor of Law, William's college, MA USA (1990)


2004   The Nobel Peace Prize
2004   The Sophie Prize
2004   Petra Kelly Environment Prize
2004   J . Sterling Morton Award
2003   Elder of the Burning Spear, Republic of Kenya
2003   WANGO Environment Award
2002   Outstanding Vision and Commitment Award, Bridges to Community
2001   Excellence Award, Kenyan Community Abroad
2001   The Juliet Hollister Award
1997   One of 100 in world who’ve made a difference in environment, Earth
1995   International Women’s Hall of Fame
1994   The Golden Ark Award
1993   The Jane Adams Leadership Award
1993   The Edinburgh Medal
1991   UN's Africa Prize for Leadership
1991   Global 500 Hall of Fame, UNEP
1991   The Goldman Environmental Prize
1989   The Offeramus Medal
1989   The Woman of the World
1988   The Windstar Award for the Environment
1986   Better World Society Award
1984   The Right Livelihood Award
1983   Woman of the year Award


The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach (Prof. Wangari Maathai, 2002)
Bottlenecks to Development

Books featuring Prof. Wangari Maathai and/or GBM
Eco Heroes: Twelve Tales of Environmental Victory (Audrey Wallace, 1993)
Land Ist Leben (Bedrohte Volker, 1993)
Women Pioneers for the Environment (Mary Joy Breton, 1998)
Una Sola Terra: Donna I Medi Ambient Despres de Rio (Brice Lalonde et al,
Speak Truth to Power (Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, 2000)
Hopes Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet (Frances Moore and Anna Lappe,

Films & Documentaries featuring Prof. Wangari Maathai & GBM
Naked Earth
Sustainable Development (1991), BBC for One World
Women, Information and Empowerment: Dr. Wangari Maathai (1994), AFSC Video
& Film Library
Africa, The Uncovered Continent (1995), Chip Taylor
Africa, Search for Common Ground (1997), Common Ground Productions, USA
South Africa: Eritrea/Kenya: Democracy or Disruption - W. Maathai & Green
Belt (1998), Common Ground Productions, USA
A Quiet Revolution (2001), Earth Council, UNEP, UNDP
The Quest to Save Turtle Island, Carol Mary Scott
Now or Never (), Seattle Central Community College, USA

Re: Trees for Democracy   Edward Frank
  Dec 10, 2004 18:15 PST 


Thanks Maurice for bringing this story to all of our attentions.

This is a pretty interesting story. There are a number of websites dealing
with the Green Belt Movement and with Prof. Wangari Maathai herself. There
is even a NPR radio interview with her you can listen to from earlier today
about her winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

NPR Interview is at:

Freinds of the Greenbelt Movement North America:

Prof. Wangari Maathai's official Website:

The Greenbelt Movement Homepage:

Earth Focus: Wangari Maathai 

Ed Frank