Wangari Maathai Receives Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo, Norway
Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
Prof Maathai and Klaus Toepfer at the opening of the WAVE Summit
There is a large sign on the road approaching the UN offices in Nairobi.
“Stop grabbing public land” is its message.
It was put there by the Green Belt Movement, the grassroots campaign founded nearly three decades ago by Wangari Maathai.
“Stop grabbing public land.” The statement is forthright, challenging, fearless.
Qualities we have come to expect from Wangari Maathai over the years.
Wangari Maathai and UNEP have a long-standing friendship. We share the same concerns.
We both understand that caring for the environment is the peace policy of the future.
That is why we made her a Global 500 laureate in 1987.
That is why we asked to her to be a member of the jury of the UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize.
Over the past 20 years, Wangari has helped us to honour 30 of the most innovative and influential talents in the field of environment and sustainable development.
She has also received many awards herself.
Now she is receiving the greatest accolade of all. One that she richly deserves.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Wangari Maathai has dedicated her life to sustainable development, democracy and peace.
When I say dedicated her life, that is exactly what I mean. Even when her life was threatened—which it often has been—she has never wavered in her convictions and her commitment to making the world a better place for the ordinary people who she represents.
When the previous regime in Kenya was at the height of its power, when dissent was likely to land you in prison or worse, it was Wangari who took on the ruling party, stopping them from building a skyscraper in a downtown park.
It is hard to imagine the courage that took.
Thanks to Wangari that park—named Uhuru Park, which means freedom in the Kiswahili language of Kenya—remains today.
Uhuru. That is a beautiful word. It symbolizes the hope of a nation freed from decades of colonial rule.
But for many Kenyans that hope has been eroded during the four decades since independence—by poverty, by greed, corruption and mismanagement, and by environmental degradation.
These are the evils that Wangari has consistently fought against.
Thanks to Wangari and a few brave souls like her, there is still hope for Kenya, there is still hope for Africa, there is still hope for the world.
Ladies and gentlemen,
No-one who was in Kenya in December 2002 will forget the joy that flooded the country—joy that we at UNEP shared—when Wangari was elected to parliament with an overwhelming majority and brought into the government as the deputy Minister for Environment and Natural Resources.
I saw that joy on people’s faces again when, only days after hearing of this Prize, Wangari came to the headquarters of UNEP to attend a conference we had organized, entitled Women as the Voice for the Environment.
Across the world, especially the developing world, women and their children bear the burden of environmental degradation: indoor air pollution, chemical poisoning, ill-health and back-breaking labour because of unsafe and scarce freshwater—the list is long.
These women need to be heard, and they need to be empowered.
Wangari Maathai has fought on behalf of women all her life.
She has fought on behalf of the environment on which they—and we—depend for our futures.
That is why she is being honoured today.
I know some people have asked why the Nobel Peace Prize Committee chose to reward an African woman known chiefly for her environmental activism, when conflict—in Iraq, in Sudan—is constantly in the world headlines.
The simple reason is this: peace, sustainable development, and caring for the local and global environment are closely linked.
This understanding is embedded in the eight Millennium Development Goals adopted by the world’s leaders in 2000. It is embodied in the declaration and plan of action adopted at the World Summit on Sustainable Development.
And it is obviously at the forefront of the minds of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.
As Wangari herself said: “Sustainable management of our natural resources will promote peace.”
By awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Wangari Maathai, the Committee has honoured women all across the globe who are in the front line of the struggle to make our world a better, more peaceful home for humanity.
This is not just a victory for Wangari Maathai.
It is a victory for Kenya,
It is a victory for Africa,
It is a victory for women,
And it is a victory for the environment.