Why the Nobel Prize for Peace Went to an Environmentalist--And Should Have

News Abroad

Mr. Abrams is the author of Nobel Lectures in Peace, 1996-2000.

On December 10 the Nobel Peace Prize for 2004 will be presented in Oslo to Wangari Maathai (pronounced wan-GAH-ree mah-DHEYE), the Kenyan environmentalist, known best for her extensive program of tree planting. Even before this award was announced in October, a question was raised in the press as to whether the prize really mattered, and afterward there were criticisms even in Norway about such a choice when the world is facing political crises in the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, and threats of terrorism.

Such critics may envisage the prize as principally an award for efforts to end wars or war-like conflicts or to limit the weapons of war. The Norwegian Nobel Committees which grant the prize, however, have followed a broader mandate. In his will establishing the prize, Alfred Nobel, the Swedish dynamite tycoon, wrote that the peace prize was for the “person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promoting of peace congresses.”

The Norwegian Nobel committees have logically interpreted the standing armies clause as work for disarmament, and the reference to peace congresses as endeavors by peace activists, with whose international peace congresses in the 1890s Nobel was familiar, but it was the clause “fraternity between nations” that these Nobel committees considered gave them the widest latitude in their choices. In their very first award of 1901, they shared the prize between the humanitarian founder of the Red Cross and a veteran peace activist..

After the announcement of Maathei’s prize, Aftenposten, Norway’s most influential newspaper, said that it was legitimate to ask, “What does tree planting have to do with peace?” But the answer, Aftenposten declared, was to be found in the Amazon, Haiti, China and Africa, where deforestation, erosion and climate change “have changed the conditions of life for millions of people, led to hunger and need, created tensions between populations and countries." The editorial concluded: “There is something untraditional and exciting with this award.”

As long ago as 1930 then Chairman Fredrik Stang of the Norwegian Committee declared that the Committee considered it its duty to be on the watch for all developments that may have a potential for bringing peace. Former chairman Egil Aarvik, in an interview with me referring to human rights, stated, “The will does not state this; but the will was made in another time. Today we realize that peace cannot be established without a full respect for freedom.” Ole Mjoes, current chairman., explained the new award, saying “We have expanded the peace concept to include environmental issues because we believe that a good quality of life on Earth is necessary to promote lasting peace.” Longtime peace scholar Chadwick Alger pointed out that peacemaking has “broadened to include dealing with things that undermine the normal fulfillment of human life.”

Wangari would have been qualified for a human rights award when she was opposing the Moi dictatorship in Kenya, working for the rights of women and for freedom and democracy, for which she suffered imprisonment and a physical beating which sent her to the hospital. Her husband abandoned her and her three children, asking for a divorce because she was “too educated, too successful, too stubborn, too hard to control.”

Before she became politically active, she had had a distinguished academic career, After graduating from a small Kansas Catholic college, she received an M.S. in biological science from the University of Pittsburgh, and was granted a Ph.D. at the University of Nairobi, where she became head of the a department of veterinary medicine, first woman Ph.D. and first woman university department head in that area of Africa. She was later a visiting professor at Yale. After the end of the dictatorship she was elected member of parliament and is now Assistant Minister of the Environment., Natural Resource and Wildlife.

She started the Green Belt grassroots movement after planting seeds for nine trees in her back yard. The forest cover in Kenya was less than 2 percent, whereas according to experts 10 percent is the absolute favorable minimum. The country was being desertified, rural women had to spend hours walking to and from wells and seeking firewood for their cooking. Wangari mobilized thousands of them to plant seeds and to protest the cutting down of trees to build luxury homes. During the Moi dictatorship she defeated his plan to build a skyscraper on the only green space in the city of Nairobi. In 30 years the movement planted 30 million trees in Kenya and 12 other countries in Africa, empowering women in the process. How this relates to peace Wangari explains: “When our resources become scarce, we fight over them. In managing our resources and in sustainable development, we plant the seeds of peace.”

Terry Tempest Williams, the American naturalist, who had followed Wangari’s career, met her again after a long absence and “was reassured that goodness and greatness does exist in the world.” Tempest also says, “She has the widest and brightest smile of any human being I know.”

The Nobel Peace Prize is considered the most prestigious humanitarian award in the world, To me, whatever peacemaking path a laureate may have followed, the Nobel Committees have done their best work in selecting those whose lives are inspirations for the rest of us to try to live up to. Wangari Maathei is clearly a member of that group. She has joined the company of such as Albert Schweitzer of Alsace-Lorraine, Ralph Bunche, Linus Pauling, Martin Luther King, Jr and Jimmy Carter of the United States, Andrei Sakharov of the Soviet Union, Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland, Alva Myrdal of Sweden, Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala and Joseph Rotblat of Poland and England, to name but a few of the choices I would consider among the best, most of whom I have been privileged to meet. These names indicate how diverse the Norwegian Nobel Committee selections have been. In these dark days of war and rumors of war, prison tortures, suicide bombers and deadly violence, it does matter that the prize has been awarded to Wangari Matthai. If the Norwegian Nobel Committees can hold up before us such heroes and heroines of humanity as these which our world can produce, does this not give us some hope for the future?