Story posted October 08, 2004
Wangari Muta Maathai, Kenyan deputy environment minister, was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize today for her "contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace." The Bowdoin community will remember Maathai for the keynote address she delivered on campus at the Symposium on Race, Justice and the Environment in February 2002.
Maathai, who was cited by the Nobel Foundation for her work as leader of the Green Belt Movement, discussed that work in her Bowdoin talk titled "The Other Side of Myths: The Green Belt Movement in Kenya."
The balance of nature is a delicate one, and Maathai described seeing first hand what happens when it's disrupted.
When she was a child in Kenya, she lived near a small stream from which her mother would send her to fetch water. Near the stream there was also a fig tree. When she was sent to gather firewood Maathai's mother told her never to gather wood from under the fig tree, for it was sacred.
When independence came to Kenya, so did commercial agriculture. Land was redistricted and Maathai's family lost claim to the fig tree that once stood on her land. That tree, along with many others, was cut down to make way for fields of coffee and tea that could be sold to other nations.
"As the tree disappeared, so did my stream," Maathai said. "I couldn't help connect the disappearance of the fig tree with the disappearance of the stream."
Women, many of whom had been complicit in the cutting of the trees, began to come to the government to complain of a lack of drinking water, and a lack of food, since the fields were full of coffee and tea rather than food to feed their families.
"The women didn't make the connection between the cutting of the trees...and the fact that now they were facing new problems," Maathai said. But because of her scientific background, she did see a link and set out to find a solution.
Maathai began organizing the women to plant trees, and despite laws prohibiting groups of more than nine people from assembling, she was able to train them.
At the time of Maathai's Bowdoin talk, about 20 million trees had been planted and about 6,000 groups of women were working on reforestation. The number of trees the Green Belt Movement has planted across Africa at the current time tops 30 million.
For more on Bowdoin's Race, Justice and the Environment Symposium, read the March 1, 2002 Bowdoin Orient feature story here.