Wangari Maathai has become the first environmentalist – and the first woman – to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in a remarkable acknowledgement of the close relationship between environmental protection and global security.

Professor Maathai – who founded the Green Belt Movement and is now Kenya’s Assistant Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources – was presented with the prize in early December for ‘her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace’.

The citation by the Norwegian Nobel Committee said: ‘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.’

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said: ‘Understanding is growing throughout the world of the close links between environmental protection and global security, so it is most fitting that the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to Africa’s staunchest defender of the environment...

‘For decades she has been a fearless opponent of the grabbing of public land and the destruction of forests, and a vigorous advocate for democracy and environmental protection.’

Professor Maathai was one of the first people to be awarded a UNEP Global 500 award, in 1987, and is a long-standing jury member of the UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize.

Shortly after the announcement she spoke of the importance of UNEP to her work in a statement to the opening of Women As the Voice for the Environment (WAVE) – the conference of women ministers for the environment and the global women’s assembly on environment – at its headquarters in Nairobi.

She said: ‘Since the early 1970s, these grounds of UNEP, respective executive directors and now Klaus Toepfer, and their wonderful staff have provided a fertile ground for us to develop ideas and strategies on how to make the environment a priority for all citizens and governments, but especially African governments.

‘The path we have travelled together has been marked with trials and triumphs, but this institution has encouraged and supported us to be brave, persistent and consistent in our pursuit of a holistic approach to achieve sustainable development.’

Bianca Jagger is one of three recipients of this year’s Right Livelihood Cash Award, for having ‘shown over many years how celebrity can be put at the service of the exploited and disadvantaged’. The prize jury cited ‘her long-standing commitment and dedicated campaigning over a wide range of issues of human rights, social justice and environmental protection’.

In the 1990s she spoke out on behalf of the rights of indigenous people in Latin America, and to save the tropical rainforests where they live. She has campaigned against logging and forest clearance – and oil pollution in the Ecuadorian Amazon – and helped to demarcate the ancestral lands of Brazil’s Yanomami people against an invasion of gold miners.

She shared the prize with Raúl Montenegro of Argentina, who was honoured for showing ‘how much one committed scientist and activist can do to raise ecological awareness and prevent environmental degradation’. Professor Montenegro – the president of FUNAM (Environment Defense Foundation) and its principal founder 22 years ago – is credited with helping to establish six national parks, stopping the deforestation of at least 500,000 hectares, preventing the construction of a nuclear reprocessing plant, forcing the clean-up of toxic waste dumps, exposing pollution and running campaigns against dams and for the provision of clean water.

The third participant in the $270,000 cash prize was the group Memorial for its work to protect civil liberties in Russia and surrounding countries

PHOTOGRAPHS: UNEP, Manuel Pallares

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Strengthening the rule of law | Partners in law | Justice can be shortsighted | Force of law | A matter of judgement | A law of energy | People | Rule of man, or rule of law? | At a glance: The rule of law | Sebastião Salgado | Sustainable development comes from Saturn! | One planet, different worlds | Nature’s wisdom | Kickback fightback | Conflict and cooperation | Holistic landmark | Empowering the poor | Legal climate | Small is effective | Building the framework

Complementary issue:
Women, Health and the Environment 2004