On October 8, 2004, Kenyan environmental justice organizer Wangari Maathai receives a Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace,” becoming the first African woman to win the award.
Maathai was born to peasant farmers in 1940, and grew up in a rural community in Kenya. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the United States before returning in 1966 to a newly independent Kenya, where she then became the first woman in east and central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. In 1977, she founded the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots organization focused on reducing poverty and preserving the natural environment.
Maathai believed that, especially in African societies, women “are often the first to become aware of environmental damage as resources become scarce.” With the degradation of natural resources and undercutting of crop export prices in international trade during the 1970s, many rural Kenyan women found their lives destabilized. Maathai developed an organizing program to educate women about the ways in which the task of meeting material needs was connected with deteriorated environmental conditions and unjust international economic arrangements.
The Green Belt Movement began to flex its power in the late 1980s through campaigns to preserve Kenya’s green spaces, including rescuing a park in Nairobi from the development of a high-rise.
“My fellow Africans,” Maathai said as she accepted the Nobel in 2004, “let us 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.”
Maathai died in 2011 of complications from ovarian cancer; she was 71.
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